In January 2019, Professor Zhiguo Yuan, Director of The University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre, was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia. This award recognises his significant service to science through urban water management, and to higher education. Utility Editor, Charlotte Pordage, caught up with him to learn more about one of Australia’s most esteemed engineers.
Professor Yuan said that he felt extremely honoured to receive the award, and also very humbled.
“There are so many others that probably did more than me, without receiving an honour like this. I feel I’m doing my part for water industry innovation, but this is not something that can be done by an individual or even a small team. For the past 20 years, I’ve been working with a large number of people who I regard as the innovators of the water industry,” Professor Yuan said.
No stranger to accolades, Professor Yuan’s other notable awards and appointments include:
- Appointed Distinguished Fellow, International Water Association, 2018
- Recipient, Laureate Fellowship, Australian Research Council, 2017
- Recipient, National Research Innovation Award, Australian Water Association, 2017
- Appointed Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, 2015
- Recipient, Clunies Ross Award, 2015
- Recipient, Global Project Innovation Award, International Water Association, 2014
- Recipient, Graduate School Supervision Award, University of Queensland, 2010
- Recipient, Excellence Award in Research, Development and Innovation, Engineers Australia, 2008
- Professor Yuan began his studies in aeronautical engineering, receiving a PhD in 1992 from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China.
He shifted his research direction to wastewater management in 1994 after taking up a postdoctoral research fellow position at Ghent University in Belgium and not feeling fulfilled by his work in the aeronautical sector.
“I wanted to do something that allowed me to contribute to society. I decided to change to environmental engineering, since environmental issues were gaining a lot of attention at the time and I thought it was something I may be able to apply my skills to,” Professor Yuan said.
On 22 March 1998, Professor Yuan arrived in Australia and started his career with the Advanced Water Management Centre (AWMC) at The University of Queensland. He was promoted to Deputy Director of the AWMC in 2001 and then Director in 2015.
One of the things Professor Yuan enjoys most about his current role is working with industry to solve real-world problems.
“When I launched my career, I wanted to work on things that were relevant and that could address real issues. Working closely with the utility industry aligns very well with my initial objective. Research should not just be contained to the laboratory.”
Professor Yuan is also passionate about supervising and mentoring researchers in the early stages of their careers.
“Twenty years ago, I was a young researcher, but now I’m becoming one of the most senior people in the centre, both in terms of age and also in terms of experience. Since then, we have attracted a lot of talent to the centre, which is one of the top research centres in the world in urban water management, and all our staff and students contribute immensely to its success,” Professor Yuan said.
By supervising and mentoring the next generation of research leaders, I feel I’m building capacity not only for the centre, but also for the nation. Although I’m very busy, I never tire of the meetings with my PhD students and younger researchers. I meet with them often, discussing research projects and how they should develop their ideas.”
Making better use of water resources
Even when he is juggling close to ten projects at a time, Professor Yuan does not just like to oversee something, he prefers to be deeply involved.
Right now, his research is focused on three main areas: sewer corrosion and odour management, resource recovery and reuse, and integrated water management.
Professor Yuan was one of the founding members of the $117 million Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities and was leader of the Future Technologies Program.
He explained that the main challenges and opportunities currently facing the water industry are not very different from many other sectors.
“The three big ones are population growth, urbanisation and climate change. These are the challenges driving many industries, but water in particular is very sensitive to those challenges.
“We can’t really continue to build more dams, to source water from outside. We can’t just expand our cities and large networks, our centralised water supply and wastewater treatment systems. We need to look at integrating different water sources that we don’t normally look at.
“That includes recycled wastewater, because wastewater is 99.9 per cent of water, and stormwater. We receive a lot of water from the sky, but the problem is we’re not retaining it. It hits impermeable ground, forming runoff and then just flows into the rivers. We lose that water, and we also contaminate our rivers because the runoff contains a lot of pollutants.”
Professor Yuan sees decentralised business models as a key component of integrated water management.
“Currently we rely mainly on central services. When you have more people living in denser cities, you’ve got more high-rises, and that means we need to provide more water and wastewater services.
“Decentralised solutions are usually more expensive, but let’s look at it from a different perspective. Imagine a city where the population increases by 50 per cent, what do you do with your basic infrastructure? You have to build new networks, which is not a trivial task in an established area.
“By providing decentralised services, you don’t have to expand your central facilities tomorrow, next year or in 20 years’ time. You do spend more money per cubic metre of water in comparison to centralised services, but you delay that major capital investment, meaning that your decentralised solution may not be that expensive anymore. With decentralised solutions, we can also have fit-for-purpose water production.
“Decentralised systems give us a lot of flexibility, and you can actually produce water with the quality that you need. If you need to water your garden or your green space, then you just remove the pathogens in greywater. But you definitely don’t need to make water that is suitable for drinking for gardens.
“In Brisbane, we have water recycling plants, where wastewater is purified to produce high-quality water. The issue here is that central wastewater services are often situated at the low point in a city, because you want to have sewage flowing to that point with minimum energy input. To produce recycled water there, the treated wastewater has to be pumped for tens of kilometres to distribute it back to households and businesses. If you have decentralised solutions you don’t need to transport that water — it’s available where it’s needed.”
The importance of industry partnerships
One of the core aspects of integrated water management is that it requires collaboration between all of the organisations that influence the water cycle. While collaborative approaches tend to deliver better outcomes for communities, there are challenges involved when disparate organisations have to work together.
Professor Yuan recently led an industry linkage project with a number of partners, including Seqwater, Queensland Urban Utilities, DC Water in the US, Public Utilities Board in Singapore and Water Research Australia, that investigated the integrated management of the sludge generated in drinking water production.
He cited this project as an example of how important it is to bring different organisations together to address problems that can impact multiple stages of the water cycle.
“A key step in water treatment is the addition of a coagulant to remove natural organic matter and suspended solids. Typically, you would add aluminium sulphate and the aluminum would drop out with the solids and organic matter, forming drinking water sludge,” Professor Yuan said.
“The sulphate is soluble and actually stays in the drinking water. In the human body, it’s not going to induce any health issues, because we can tolerate quite high levels of sulphate. It’s a big problem for the sewer network however, because we have corrosion and odour issues through the formation of hydrogen sulphide.
“There is a strong need to change the coagulant in drinking water treatment. It’s a billion dollar problem and 70 per cent of drinking water plants across the world use aluminium sulphate. Drinking water providers may not see the addition of aluminium sulphate as an issue, because it’s cheaper than other coagulants and can produce high-quality water. The effect on wastewater is no good though.
“The addition of ferric chloride to the sewer network for sulphide control is a well established strategy, and if you use ferric salts for drinking water production, the ferric will separate from the water into your sludge.”
With the findings from this project, Professor Yuan said that there is a good opportunity for water and wastewater service providers to work together, despite their different roles in the water industry.
“I’d like to highlight the importance for researchers and industry to work together. Researchers want to solve real problems, not fake problems,” Professor Yuan said.
“We have the knowledge, science and technology to support industry and we can use these strengths to provide fundamental solutions.”