The teamworking visionary
Peter A. Wilderer has developed holistic, interdisciplinary research into sustainable water use and sanitation, David Thorpe investigates the winner of the 2003 Stockholm Water Prize
Professor Wilderer works at the Technical University of Munich and is also director of the Institute of Advanced Studies on Sustainability (IASS), which was founded in June 2002. His interdisciplinary and inclusive approach combines specific technology R&D with a deep concern for the environment and the quality of life of all people. For him, successful water management depends on a detailed understanding of the interrelationships between environmental factors, ecological and microbiological systems and human activities.
This approach began in 1973 under the influence of his PhD supervisor, Professor Dr Ludwig Hartmann, when the pair realised the limitations of the ‘flushing sewer concept’, which he said was "the greatest sin of the engineers, applying large amounts of high quality tap water for nothing but transportation of wastes". Professor Hartmann’s specialisim was ecological sciences while Wilderer’s was civil engineering, so it was typical of the latter’s future approach that his PhD thesis dealt with BOD analysis based on enzyme kinetics.
Wilderer relates that: "In 1986, I served for a short time as a visiting professor at the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand. Together with the students we discussed the state of sanitation in Bangkok and rural Thailand. It became very clear to me that the water supply/sanitation system as it has been developed in the industrialised countries needs fundamental modifications to be applicable in developing countries." In 1997 a company commissioned to build houses for Russian soldiers returning home from former East Germany asked him how he would design water supply/wastewater treatment technology if only the current knowledge in physics, chemistry, microbiology and economical sciences were available, but without civil engineering information. Together with his students he developed a concept which first was presented at an IWA conference in Stratford upon Avon in 1999.
"Since about that time the concept of ‘decentralised sanitation and reuse’, which includes source separation and treatment of individual waste streams, received rapidly increasing interest worldwide, and a growing group of researchers and developers are now working on the realisation of this concept, which includes reuse not only of water but also of nutrients and other valuable substances. We call it the concept of sustainable water management in municipal and rural areas. I do not claim that I invented this concept. The time was just ripe for the idea to spring up," he says.
"In summary, it took almost 30 years until the concept received any response. Nowadays, the interest is wide spread. What do we learn from this? One must be patient, persistent and stubborn to become successful, eventually."
Another major strand of Professor Wilderer’s work is in biofilm technology for sewage treatment. Biofilm systems have many advantages over activated sludge systems provided the cell yield is relatively low as it is the case, for instance, when ammonia has to be converted to nitrate (nitrification). His team’s research has, he says, established that "transfer of novel genetic capabilities is much faster in biofilms than in sludge flocs. Thus, biofilm technology is especially interesting when xenobiotics (hazardous organic substances) are to be removed from industrial wastewaters or from leachates from landfills, contaminated industrial areas or military sites."Digesting new ideas
He has also turned his intention to the problem of sewage sludge. "We, for instance, work on an anaerobic digester in which we employ the microbiology which is normally found in the rumen of animals like sheep, goats or cows. Our primary goal is to produce fatty acids at a high turnover rate, feed just the acids into a methane reactor, to produce a gas which can be used for electricity production by means of fuel cells. Still, we will end up with solid residuals which we try to turn into a hygienically safe compost."
In June 2002 he established as an off-shoot of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Institute of Advanced Studies on Sustainability to "serve as a centre of excellence, and provide a service to the governments in Europe as well as to the private sector and the scientific community". One of the institute’s major international programmes is the Safe Blue Danube project on water-related risk management. The aim is to develop appropriate measures to detect, avoid and counteract disastrous events concerning flooding and accidental pollution in the Danube river, its tributaries and delta in the Black Sea.
I asked him why he thought he had been given the prize, and his reply was typically modest: "The simple answer is I am a team worker. I love to come up with many strange ideas, share information with others, and enjoy when ideas are picked up and further developed. In Munich, I opened my institute for scholars and visiting scientists from foreign countries which made my lab very international — there are 60 to 80 people working in my lab, more than 50% are from abroad. Munich became a think tank over the past 12 years, embedded in the typical Bavarian Gemuetlichkeit*."
I then enquired if he had any advice to give and what he would do with the prize money. "My advice to the young generation is to preserve the enthusiasm and curiosity of childhood, and to keep thinking the un-thinkable. What I mean by this is we, the older generation and our predecessors developed technologies which may look wonderful at the first glace. A closer look reveals very often, however, that one could do better. But one has to leave for a moment the traditional path, look over the fence of one’s own discipline and learn from others to find the better solution. When I talk about other disciplines, I mean not only disciplines of engineering and natural sciences. Why not have a closer look at what scientists of social sciences, psychology or theology are concerned about? Water means to people a lot more than just H2O. Sustainable water managements must respect the sentiments and religious beliefs of people."
Professor Wilderer says he will retire from the Technical University of Munich next year. "I am planning to support through the IASS any activities which lead to advances in water and waste management with special emphasis on developing countries. I will put the money into a fund administered by the institute and use it to support young scientists working at the interface of disciplines and cultures." Professor Wilderer’s $150,000 prize and a crystal sculpture, will be given by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at a ceremony in the Stockholm City Hall August 14, during World Water Week l *A sense of well being, feeling at ease with one’s surroundings.Selected bibliography: Water in China, Ed. N Schwarzenbeck, PA Wilderer, J. Zhu. International Water Association, 2003. Sequencing Batch Reactor Technology, Ed. PA Wilderer, RL Irvine, MC Goronszy. International Water Association, 2002. Biofilms in Wastewater Treatment: An Interdisciplinary Approach, PA Wilderer, et al. International Water Association, 2002. Water Recycling and Resource Recovery in Industry: Analysis, Technologies and Implementation, Ed. PA Lens, L Hulshoff Pol, PA Wilderer, T Asano. International Water Association, 2002. Modern Scientific Tools in Bioprocessing, Ed. PA Wilderer. Elsevier, 2002. The Structure and Function of Biofilms, Ed. WG Characklis, PA Wilderer. John Wiley, 1989). More information: Institute of Advanced Studies on Sustainability www.advances.de.