Australian Centre for Water
and Environmental Biotechnology

UQ graduate wins QLD water prize

Friday, 10 September 2021
  • Image of Tao Liu giving acceptance speech at the Awards Night

A University of Queensland PhD project investigating net-zero emissions and energy neutrality in wastewater treatment has won a prestigious industry award.

The 2021 QLD Student Water Prize, presented at the annual Australian Water Association Queensland Gala Dinner and Awards Night, was awarded to recent PhD graduate Tao Liu for his work on Net-Zero Emission and Energy Neutrality, a Novel Technology to Utilise Methane Produced in Wastewater Treatment.

Common wastewater treatment processes produce considerable amounts of methane, accounting for 4-5% of total methane emissions globally.

How to beneficially use dissolved and gaseous methane generated in wastewater treatment is a critical question for all wastewater industries seeking sustainable development.

“Many water utilities in Australia have set aspirational targets to achieve net-zero emission and energy neutrality in wastewater management processes,” said Dr Liu.

Wastewater management is undergoing a strong paradigm shift from pollutant removal to resource and energy recovery.

“My project sought to provide a solution for the beneficial utilization of methane generated in wastewater treatment,” said Dr Liu.

“We had a break-through discovery of a unique microorganism that is capable of performing methane-supported nitrogen removal.”

This microorganism (Candidatus ‘Methanoperedens nitroreducens’) has allowed Dr Liu to develop new technology to use the gaseous methane in biogas to replace the conventional organic carbons for nitrogen removal.

These new biotechnologies were used to treat various types of wastewater, including the mainstream domestic sewage and side stream anaerobic digestion liquor.

Notably, more than 95% of the nitrogen in wastewater could be removed efficiently, with considerably less greenhouse gas emission and sludge production.

“The systems are also able to maintain a stable performance under different temperatures, which is valuable for regions with seasonal variations,” said Dr Liu.

“This novel technology has potential to position Australian water industries at the frontier of advanced wastewater treatment technologies.”

Based on the outcome of his PhD project, a new project aiming to scale up the technologies he developed has been launched, with Dr Liu as one of the key researchers.

This project is co-supported by the Australian Research Council, Urban Utilities, Melbourne Water Corporation, and South Australian Water Corporation.

Dr Liu is now in the running for the National Student Water Prize which will be announced at the Ozwater’22 conference in May 2022.

(Left to right) David Thomas (Aurecon - Award Sponsor), Dr Tao Liu (UQ), Dr Nicole Davis (AWA QLD President)