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New professor will spearhead the development of a ground-breaking new wastewater system

Mika Sillanpää, one of the world's leading researchers in wastewater treatment, is a new professor at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University. Here, he will help develop the wastewater system of the future, which will radically change the way in which we treat wastewater.

2021.06.13 | Jesper Bruun

"To be honest, I think I became a professor too early," says Professor Mika Sillanpää, one of the world's leading researchers in wastewater-treatment technologies, who has just started as a professor at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University. Photo: Teemu Leinonen

One of the most significant discoveries ever made for global public health and the environment was in 1913, when the two engineers, Edward Ardern and W.T. Lockett, discovered the so-called activated sludge process; a biological technique to treat wastewater without using chemicals.

The discovery led to a landmark new microbiological wastewater treatment technique, which spread to the entire industrialised world after the First World War, and which, 107 years later, is still an extremely important element in modern wastewater treatment.

However, the method is no longer good enough.

The world is facing environmental and climate challenges pushing us to treat wastewater using very different methods. Sludge is a resource, and it can be converted into valuable materials, all of which are part of a bio-based society of the future, where raw materials, production, consumption and waste are elements in a sustainable cycle known as the circular bioeconomy.

"The activated sludge process was a fantastic discovery, and it’s met statutory requirements for wastewater treatment for more than a century. But there are several disadvantages in the technology. It’s inefficient and expensive, it can’t degrade microplastics or recover metals, and carbon is lost in the process. In short, it can’t do what today’s problems need it to do," says Professor Mika Sillanpää, one of the world's leading researchers in wastewater-treatment technologies, who has just started as a professor at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University.

In collaboration with the other researchers at the department, he will develop a completely new concept to replace the current way of treating wastewater.

"Our new system will be far more energy efficient, make a significantly smaller footprint, almost fully recover all resources, and completely eliminate polluting microsubstances," he says.

Mika Sillanpää graduated as a chemical engineer from Aalto University in Finland, where he also took his PhD. He was interested in wastewater treatment even during his Master's degree, and in recent years, this research interest has evolved towards resource recycling.

"The primary focus today is on maximising utilisation of wastewater, so that we can extract everything of value. Sludge contains huge quantities of materials that we can recycle with the right technological methods," he says.

After his PhD in 1997, at just age 27, he took over a postdoc position at Aalto University, and stayed there until 2000 when he became a full professor. He was the youngest full professor in Finland ever at the time. He has since been employed in professorships at the University of Oulu, at LUT University, and at the University of Eastern Finland.

"To be honest, I think I became a professor too early. I’d probably have been more experiment-oriented if I’d gone down the traditional path of starting as an assistant professor," he says.

Mika Sillanpää has received a large number of awards for his research. For example, in 2010 he received the Scientific Committee on the Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) Young Investigator Award at the 2010 UNESCO conference in Shanghai. He has also been invited to be the principal scientific reviewer for the GEO-5 report under the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

In his research work, he has published more than 800 scientific publications and has been listed several times by Thomson Reuters as one of the most cited researchers in the world in his area.

"Professor Sillanpää is an excellent researcher, and he has proposed a research strategy that aligns extremely well with the department's plans to develop the wastewater treatment of the future. The strategy also goes hand in hand with the ambitions of the university, regional water utilities and all of Denmark to make Aarhus an internationally recognised research centre for wastewater treatment," says Professor Lars DM Ottosen, head of the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering.

Mika Sillanpää will be employed at Aarhus University for 10 per cent of his time until January 2022. He will then move with his family from Finland to Aarhus and work full time at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering.


Contact

Jesper Bruun
Science journalist
Mail: bruun@au.dk
Tel.: +45 42404140

AU Engineering, Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering