Inappropriate solutions, glorification of research data, and the attempt to transfer solutions from one part of the world to the rest of the world are among the challenges to be solved when thinking of access to safe drinking water. Chicgoua Noubactep, Associate Professor at the University of Göttingen, Germany, has the dream of treating water for the whole world.
Here he talks to Drs. Prisca Henheik and Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about this.
What do you think are the main challenges facing access to safe drinking water?
There are certainly many challenges. The most urgent is to design efficient water-treatment systems for people who don’t have any money. Clearly, the main challenge is not money but designing efficient systems — or one might say appropriate, efficient water-treatment systems — for situations in which little money is available.
What are your hopes for the future regarding sustainable access to drinking water?
I’m confident that people will soon realize their inherent creativity and apply it to designing efficient systems for water treatment. We are not able to solve a problem that has lasted for at least six decades, but we can — and we will — show people the way to help do it themselves.
Although the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for drinking water will not be achieved in some parts of the world, if the science of self-reliance is universally adopted, it will take less than two decades to realize the objective of ‘universal access to safe drinking water’. This was part of the ‘Global Strategy of Health for All by the Year 2000’ proclaimed in 1980 by the UN General Assembly.
Which trends do you think have moved in the wrong direction?
There have been several mistakes. The crucial mistake has been threefold:
(i) trying to transfer the ‘centralized water supply system’ in other parts of the world,
(ii) trying to transfer technologies developed for the so-called first world to the rest of the world, and
(iii) implementing those technologies in the third world without a sustainable concept, which includes the involvement of indigenous universities and research centers.
What makes metallic iron (Fe0) filters interesting?
Fe0 filters address both chemical and microbial contamination. For chemical contaminants, it is preferable that the contaminants are negatively charged, whether they are organic or inorganic in nature. But even positively charged contaminants can be quantitatively removed; it is a matter of proper design. So Fe0 filters are interesting because they are easy to design and they address the whole spectrum of water contamination. They are also interesting because they can be coupled to all other existing solutions. For example, positively charged species are readily adsorbed onto sand. This means that placing a biosand filter before a Fe0 filter increases the efficiency of the resulting system relative to the Fe0 filter alone.
Are there applications of this technology?
Certainly. Fe0 filters in the form of subsurface permeable reactive barriers (PRBs) have been tested and commercialized since the middle of the 1990s. Besides PRBs, Fe0 has been successfully used in household water filters. The most famous example is the award-winning SONO arsenic filter (SAF). Explicitly developed for arsenic, SAF devices have been removing other inorganic and organic contaminants for more than 12 years. In other words, no proof of concept is necessary any more! What is needed is system optimization.
And which trends are moving in the wrong direction with Fe0 filters?
The main problem of the Fe0 filtration technology is that is was introduced by engineers. It was then tested and applied in a pragmatic way. This makes any scientific discussion difficult because colleagues are glorifying the good data they have accumulated. When one comes along and says ‘co-precipitation, or volumetric expansion, is not being properly considered’, colleagues will go into the abundant literature of more than 2,000 scientific articles and find some researchers who have discussed co-precipitation as a removal mechanism for specific contaminants, mostly inorganic species. Similarly, colleagues will present you some articles that discuss porosity loss based on the relative molar volumes of iron oxides and other possible precipitates. However, the problem is that such inherent fundamental aspects should be discussed by any researcher, in any individual publication, if scientific progress is the goal.
Clearly, considering Fe0 as a reducing agent has been a major mistake, and underestimating the importance of volumetric expansion — which is the essence of metal corrosion in general and aqueous iron corrosion at pH > 4.5 in particular — was another major mistake. Fixing these two mistakes will enable the realization of the huge potential of Fe0 filtration for environmental remediation. This includes demonstrating the limitations of the technology on a scientific basis. Environmental remediation includes sanitation, which is the other pillar of sustainable safe drinking water.
How can we best educate the general public about this topic?
Actually, who is to be educated? The decision makers who have been adopting inappropriate solutions over decades, or the poor citizens who are suffering from the consequences?
To the general public, there is a clear message: Safe drinking water for all is an achievable goal and it is not a matter of being rich or poor. A trivial illustration: The major part of the work my students and I have published since 2009 has been realized without any financial support and mostly by students from poor countries, either in their homelands in Africa or as master’s students in Göttingen. Imagine the output if I were leading a funded research team!
Educating the general public starts and ends with mass media. I’m thankful to ChemViews Magazine and you ladies for bringing this information to a broader audience. Since 2008, we have presented the idea and the state of the development of Fe0 filters at several conferences mostly to scientists. Now, time has come to go over to the consumers. However, we willcontinue to interest young potential researchers for the topic and to organize short courses for experts from the water treatment industry.
How can we boost research on this topic?
My vision is the science of self-reliance, which is motivating people to adopt a do-it-yourself approach. Research centers and universities in the developing world should be equipped with robust analytical devices. The first of these, besides an analytical balance, is a spectrophotometer. Concentration determination by these devices is time-consuming but the results are comparable to those obtained by more sophisticated methods like atomic absorption spectroscopy (AAS) or inductively coupled plasma (ICP). In other words, because money for argon, nitrogen, and expensive standard solutions might be lacking, researchers in this part of the world should spend more time in the lab.
Another important aspect is to create a space for the results they will produce. Imagine if research were to start today on ‘Fe0 for a decentralized safe drinking water supply’ in just 30 countries across the world. In some two years, there would be around 45 articles to submit. I think it would be a good thing if these articles were not disseminated among the broad scientific literature but concentrated in a (new?) journal or a section of an appropriate journal. Thinking about alternatives is part of the solution.
What originally got you interested in this field?
It is a very long story but I’ll make it short. I studied chemistry. With a bachelor’s degree, I asked myself how I could be useful to society. My answer was applying chemistry to water treatment. Since then, treating water has been my dream and my reality.
What is most fascinating for you about your research?
The motivation of young people (master’s and PhD students) to be part of the efforts for simple, efficient water-treatment technologies. I currently have PhD students in Africa who are physically unknown to me. They work under very difficult conditions. We have to shape their topics according to the available research facilities. It is really fascinating to see how original results are produced under such difficult conditions.
Please tell us a bit about your career path.
I went to school in Bangangté, a still very small but very beautiful city in the heart of Cameroon, a former German colony. Then I joined the then sole national University of Yaoundé, where I studied Chemistry. With a Master of Science in Inorganic Chemistry, I joined the Technical University of Dresden for a PhD with a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). After two years in Dresden, I joined the historical University of Technology of Freiberg (Bergakademie), where I achieved my PhD. After a short sojourn at Friedrich-Schiller University Jena, I joined Göttingen in October 2002.
In Cameroon and in Dresden my research field was the synthesis and characterization of activated carbons for water treatment. In Freiberg, I investigated the mechanism of uranium removal by Fe0. That its how I realized that U removal was not a property of reducing Fe0 but a characteristic of aqueous iron corrosion. This was the basis for suggesting Fe0 as a universal water-treatment medium.
In Jena and during my first years in Göttingen, my research was focused on contaminant release from ore materials and their transport into the environment. In 2005, I returned to remediation with Fe0. And from 2008 on, my main topic has been “Fe0 for decentralized safe drinking water provision”. This is also the content of my habilitation degree and a course I teach mainly to international master’s students in Göttingen.
What do you do in your spare time?
As I told you my dream is to treat water for the whole world. To achieve this aim I’m engaged in several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and I’m an active member of two of them. I’m in charge of the project ‘Safe Water for All in Africa’, an initiative of a Belgian NGO ‘Comité Afro-Européen’ based in Namur and led by Mrs. Miroye Kizamie. The objective is to bring our vision to other people, wherever they are.
When time is left, football and music are almost the only things I do. I love African music and its inspiring and encouraging messages. There is always a passage in a song that makes you smile. Actually, I’m not actively playing football, but my kids have started on a team. When there is time left, I phone parents and friends all over the world, mostly to discuss cultural issues.
Thank you for the interview.
Chicgoua Noubactep, born in 1968 in Bangoua, Cameroon, studied chemistry at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, and received his Master of Science there in 1992 based on “Drinking Water Treatment with Activated Carbons”. In 2002, he earned his PhD from the University of Freiberg, Germany, for studies on groundwater remediation using metallic iron, and received his habilitation in 2011 on “Metallic Iron for Safe Drinking Water Provision” from the University of Göttingen, Germany.
Currently he is an associate professor there.
Noubactep’s research focuses on safe drinking water provision for households and small communities (e.g., rural), self-reliance in safe drinking water provision, and migration and mitigation of contaminants in the hydrosphere.
Noubactep has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. He is engaged in several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the African Development Initiative e.V., Frankfurt, Germany, the International Foundation for Sustainable Development in Africa and Asia (IFSDAA e.V.), Göttingen, Germany, and the International Society for Sustainable Development and Agriculture (ISSDA e.V.), Göttingen, and is an active member of the Culture and Sustainable Development (CDD e.V.), Göttingen, Germany, and the Comité Afro-Européen, Namur, Belgium.
- Flaws in the Design of Fe0-Based Filtration Systems?,
Chemosphere 2014, 117, 104–107.
- Metallic Iron for Water Treatment: A Critical Review,
Clean: Soil, Air, Water 2013, 41 (7), 702–710.
- Designing Iron-Amended Biosand Filters for Decentralized Safe Drinking Water Provision,
C. Noubactep, E. Temgoua, M. A. Rahman,
Clean: Soil, Air, Water 2012, 40 (8), 798–807.
- Nanoscale Metallic Iron for Environmental Remediation: Prospects and Limitations,
C. Noubactep, S. Caré, R. Crane,
Water, Air, Soil, Pollut. 2012, 223 (3), 1363–1382.
- Metallic Iron for Safe Drinking Water Worldwide,
Chem. Eng. J. 2010, 165 (2), 740–749.
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