Securing water for the future: one young researcher shares her water story
National Water Week (17-23 October) aims to inspire individuals, communities and organisations to build awareness around the value of water. To celebrate this year’s theme, "Our Water Stories", we asked the 2022 winner of the Student Water Prize to share her water research journey.
Elkia Szczecinski took out the Student Water Prize at Ozwater’22 for her excellent Curtin University chemistry honours project, which delivered an innovative method for analysis of bromophenols – compounds that are known to cause aesthetically displeasing tastes in some drinking waters.
Szczecinski’s aim was to improve the efficiency and cost of desalinated water production by re-examining bromophenol formation conditions, with the potential to create long-term sustainability benefits.
“I’m a chemistry major and at the end of my Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree, I had to choose an honours project. I was attracted to water research topics because they have a strong emphasis on addressing climate change and sustainability,” she said.
“And that’s something I've been interested in ever since I was a child. Our world is changing, our climate is changing, and we are all going to face some very big challenges.
“I figured that by doing some water research, I might be able to help in some small way to secure water for the future. What’s more, the water sector is an essential industry, so I know that there is always going to be work, and problems to solve.
“But I came to water research mostly because I am just really interested in seeing how we will secure water for the future. It’s not going to be an easy road and I’m interested in being part of that.”
Szczecinski said she was initially attracted to desalination because it was a topic she didn’t know a lot about, and she soon developed a deep appreciation for the source and technology behind its production.
“At the time I decided on my project topic, I knew very little about desalinated seawater. To be honest, I'd actually heard that it was bad for the environment due to how energy-hungry it is to produce. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it,” she said.
“But it didn’t take long before my appreciation for this resource option grew. When it comes down to it, people need water to drink.
“I started out with the knowledge of an everyday consumer and with a lot of assumptions, but through the research and learning, I started to realise that desalination will likely need to play a key role in achieving water security in drying climates moving forward.”
Making desalination sustainable
With the race to net zero speeding up, Szczecinski said it’s clear that water treatment processes must achieve as many gains on efficiency as possible – that we need to give sustainability everything we’ve got – and her analysis of bromophenols helps to do just that.
“Bromophenols are compounds that cause an unpleasant taste when present at certain levels in drinking water. They taste like plastic. And that definitely needs to be addressed,” she said.
“The bromophenols are not present in distributed drinking water. Rather, they sometimes form when drinking water containing bromide comes into contact with particular plastic materials in the customer’s premises.
"Limiting the bromide in desalinated seawater to a very low level is one way this issue has been managed. My research was essentially exploring the possibility of increasing that bromide level without impacting on the water quality delivered to customers.”
Szczecinski said that her research looked at how bromophenol formation changes if the bromide level is increased, and the results showed that there was no significant difference if the bromide level was increased by a factor of two.
“It doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but by allowing for a slight increase in bromide levels in the desalinated water, it can save a huge amount of energy, by reducing the amount of reverse osmosis treatment required,” she said.
“I hope this finding contributes to finding long-term efficiencies when it comes to producing desalinated water.”
Szczecinski said that while her honours project is now over, she is definitely interested in the possibility of pursuing further study or employment in the water community.
“Right now I am working as a research assistant in a completely different area, but water is always in the back of my mind. It’s definitely something I still have a very strong interest in,” she said.
“There’s a lot going on in terms of emerging contaminants in water. I’m interested in the work that needs to go into profiling and characterising some of these emerging contaminants that are of particular concern. I’m interested in helping to track toxicity for these emerging issues.”
Aside from having an ongoing interest in water, Szczecinski said participating in the Student Water Prize has also introduced her to the water community itself, and given her a taste for what a career in water might be like.
“Water is a great industry full of great people. I didn't know anyone when I first started my research. By the end of my Student Water Prize journey, I had got to know so many people who have all been so friendly, welcoming and helpful,” she said.
“It was actually one of the first things my supervisor, Professor Cynthia Joll, told me about the water sector. She mentioned to me that everyone in the water industry is very welcoming. And it’s true. Everyone has been so supportive and kind.”
But, aside from making a bunch of new friends, Szczecinski said she also found the dedication to improvement and change in the water sector very refreshing.
“It’s an essential industry that makes a real difference. The dedication to improvement I’ve seen in the water sector can be quite rare.
“My journey into the water sector has been really great, and I’d recommend it to any other young people deciding on a career path. There will always be lots of important and rewarding work to do here.
“It’s a great place to go if you want to help make change.”