Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and the 2021 AIChE Chemical Engineering for Good Challenge (ACE4G)

AIChE Chemical Engineering for Good Challenge, also known as ACE4G, is a competition to encourage chemical engineering students and their partners to consider how chemical engineering know-how can be appropriately applied on a small scale to improve the quality of life for communities in the developing world. 

How did you come up with the idea for your competition submission, "Integrated Water Management: Treatment and Waste Reuse"?

While we were searching on the internet for innovative technologies capable of improving the quality of life of small communities, we realized that a vast number of technologies for sewage treatment only seek to inactivate the polluting components. Then, we recognized the potential for cycling nutrients and organic matter present in those sanitary waters, especially when treated by small-scale technologies.

We also spoke with the EWB (Engineers Without Borders) Porto Alegre to learn about the difficulties faced in the implementation of international services projects (ISP). At this meeting, the importance of the correct choice of technology was evident, as well as the participation of the community in the development of the treatment system. Finally, we also noted that the maintenance of the toolkit of the technologies should be as simple and economical as possible, as this work would, ideally, be carried out by the residents of the communities themselves.

Looking at the winners of the last few years, we could see that second content type for project entries – developing an ISP toolkit of existing chemical engineering-related technologies that address a technical challenge – was not the favorite among ACE4G competitors. We had a lot of good ideas and determination, but we did not have a specific community to apply any of the technologies to, and we didn't have the time to find one. Knowing this, we decided to take a chance. We chose our three best technologies capable of treating and reusing sewage. These technologies promote basic sanitation and also return different products to the population, such as biogas, drinking water, electricity, and even food.

Do you think that the technology you recommended could be implemented on a larger scale?

Speaking more specifically about our toolkit, the Evapotranspiration Tank demands free surface area. Thus, its dimensioning would occupy a bigger area to apply on a large scale. Furthermore, since we are talking about a technology of biological treatment based on microorganisms and plants, it would be difficult to guarantee the necessary care to keep organisms alive.

TEvap is highly indicated for the treatment of sanitary water produced by a single family. Therefore, its recommended to install several modules when applying it on a larger scale. An example of this is the work of Professor Gustavo Machado, who implemented 11 TEvap modules in Praia do Sono, a small fishing community that can only be accessed by long trails or boats. It is worth remembering that this technology stands out for treating the effluent completely without the need to manage it in areas far from its production site. Other ecological sanitation technologies are capable of treating large amounts of sewage, such as wetlands and biodigesters.

The application of biodigesters on a large scale is more viable and widespread. There are several examples of this technology working on a larger scale than what we had in mind for our submission. The city of Petrópolisin Rio de Janeiro, for example, has eight biodigesters that serve more than 10,000 people, the largest of which serves about 3,000 people. The European company All Gás produces fuel from biogas in a very innovative way. Algae are used to bio-remove sewage components. In addition, due to their high reproduction rate, these algae are used as raw material to feed biodigesters, increasing the rate of biogas production considerably.

Membrane distillation is the only non-biological technology in our toolkit. For example, on an industrial scale, it can be used to remove salts and concentrate juices. In addition, very close to us, at the UFRJ Technological Park, the company PAM Membranes carries out large-scale projects using membrane modules to treat leachate from landfills. In addition, with the use of hybrid membrane technologies, it is also possible to reduce costs from the production of electric energy, recovery of some nitrogen compounds, and other diverse functions of the hybrid processes of separation and filtration by membranes.

What inspired you to enter this competition?

My name is Lucas Pacheco and I am graduating with an environmental engineering degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I am very interested in topics such ecological sanitation, renewable energies, and agroecology, especially when linked to social issues. When I joined AIChE UFRJ I did not have high expectations of putting knowledge in my area into practice. However, through ACE4G I had contact with professionals and teachers directly involved with the technologies applied in the competition. In addition, I was able to focus on a small-scale project, seeking solutions that actually would impact the lives of those most affected by social inequality, environmental racism, and climate crises.

In the foreground, my main motivation for structuring the chapter's participation in the competition was the chance to integrate concepts of chemical and environmental engineering to promote a more equitable and sustainable world. Finally, nothing would be possible without the full support of teachers, professionals, and members, all of whom were crucial in keeping the team together and committed to the competition.

What were some of the highlights of working on this competition with your team members? Did you learn anything new in this process?

The networking was impressive. We got help from four professors, one professional engineer from the EWB, two doctoral students, in addition to the entire team of 14 from AIChE UFRJ. All these people gathered remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teamwork is certainly another key point that deserves to be highlighted. We worked for three months on the submission without meeting in person. Debuting on the podium with a toolkit submission was a great challenge but at the same time a lot of fun. For all these reasons, I am very proud of the team's companionship and the effort everyone has put into producing a high-quality submission.

As the person responsible for managing the chapter's participation in the competition, I could see clearly what my strengths and weaknesses are and also how to exploit them. These were never-before-seen experiences, and I love that feeling of doing something for the first time. I was able to better develop soft skills such as leadership, time management, and communication. In addition, all the knowledge about the theoretical and technical parts of the technologies applied makes me see better how to achieve my objective of helping to improve the quality of life of those who have their rights neglected.

Finally, I cannot wait for the return of face-to-face classes. Being able to meet all the chapter members who participated directly or indirectly in the competition is sure to be an incredible moment. We are also very excited to start our next project for the next round of ACE4G.