Protecting our water supply

Scientia Professor David Waite is improving environmental outcomes at home in Australia and around the world.

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In the last four decades, Professor Waite has made significant contributions to the field of environmental chemistry to improve water quality in Australia and developing countries.

He has expertise in the behaviour of elements such as iron, manganese, copper, silver and uranium in natural and engineered systems. Not only has he published over 350 peer-reviewed articles in a number of international scientific journals, he has been awarded more than $16 million in research funding for his work on water quality and treatment technologies.

Currently Professor Waite leads the Biogeochemical Engineering, Management and Systems (BioGEMS) research group at UNSW which works to prevent environmental degradation and boost human health. The team of highly experienced researchers is involved in ARC Linkage and Discovery projects with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and undertakes commercial research for industry partners. Professor Waite was recently appointed to the role of Executive Director and CEO of the UNSW Centre for Transformational Environmental Technologies (CTET).

In June, Professor Waite and his team were awarded $498,000 from the ARC for a project on ammonia recovery from wastewater using flow electrode-membrane systems. The outcome of the project is expected to minimise damage to, and develop solutions for restoration and remediation of soil, fresh and potable water, urban catchments and marine systems, and significantly improve the environmental impacts of ammonia.

“My aim is to undertake biogeochemical research which improves our understanding of natural aquatic systems and enables us to i) prevent environmental degradation and ii) develop appropriate solutions to challenges such as provision of water supply and improving human health.

“There are huge gaps in our understanding of the biogeochemical relationships in nature. Filling these knowledge gaps will both help prevent future environmental problems and assist in finding solutions for existing problems.”

His work in the late 2000s with Dr Richard Collins has also led to a dramatic reduction in acid generation on the NSW coast, and significant improvement in water quality.

In 2015, Waite and his colleague Dr Peter Kovalsky secured funding for an ARC Linkage project aimed at creating a solar-powered capacitive deionisation (CDI) unit suitable for use in remote or developing communities.

"While CDI has been around for a while, it’s becoming increasingly popular because it’s a low-energy technology and is also very scalable. If you want to build a small unit for a household, you can do that, but you can also scale it up to serve a community."

In addition, the philanthropic arm of Tata Group awarded the project grant funding to build units to treat water supplies in remote Indian villages without any mains power.

Professor Waite is an inaugural Fellow of the PLuS Alliance, a collaboration between UNSW, King’s College London and Arizona State University. His research is supported by the Torch Innovation Precinct at UNSW, a $100 million innovation partnership with China, and he has won the prestigious Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) Environment Medal.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute (RACI), the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) and the Royal Society of New South Wales. He is also a Foreign Member of the United States National Academy of Engineering (NAE). 

This story was published on the Times Higher Education website. Professor Waite will be attending at the Research Excellence Summit: Asia-Pacific at UNSW Sydney, 19-21 February.