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Is water treatment about to see an ozone and UV revolution?

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Humans have known about the importance of clean water for millennia. Yet modern water treatment would be the envy of past civilisations. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Is water treatment about to see an ozone and UV revolution?

Humans have known about the importance of clean water for millennia. Yet modern water treatment would be the envy of past civilisations.

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Through chemicals such as chlorine, we’ve curtailed the presence of dangerous viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites in our water and food. Before modern techniques, many thousands of people would die annually from diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever.

According to Chetan Mistry, Xylem Africa‘s Strategy and Marketing Manager, the world is yet again undergoing a revolution in water treatment, this time led by ultraviolet (UV) light and ozone technologies.

“The chemical treatment of water is very effective, but it also has drawbacks. Other than the environmental concerns, it’s not always practical to use chemicals such as chlorine on a smaller scale or for specific applications.

Treatment facilities are also keen to reduce the amount of chemicals they have to stockpile and manage. Ozone and UV have become popular either as alternatives or complementary additions to chlorine systems,” says Mistry.

UV and ozone are very potent non-chemical ways to destroy many types of water contaminants, including bacteria, parasites, and viruses (even COVID), as well as removal of some metals. How are these technologies helping improve our world?

The magic of ozone and UV

Ozone and UV are both naturally-occurring cleansing agents. UV’s power was discovered 140 years ago when scientists worked out why sunlight kills some types of pathogens.

The UV light triggers chemical reactions inside microorganisms that essentially destroy their genetic structures and make it much harder for them to reproduce. You can witness this effect on how the sun burns skin into a tan. Ozone is far more aggressive, attacking the cell walls and coatings of viruses, cysts, pathogens, and bacteria, killing all on contact. Ozone also reacts with colour, taste and odour compounds leaving a clear, tasteless sparkling water behind.

UV and ozone often complement chlorine treatment systems to create safe drinking water from heavily-polluted water sources, allowing for the safe re-use of waste waters back to potable standards.

“Many wastewater facilities want to reduce their chlorine use for safety or environmental reasons,” Mistry explains. “They retrofit self-contained UV and ozone systems to their lines, which drastically reduces chemical usage and manual oversight hours.”

Both technologies also stand on their own. They are commonly used to clean fruits and vegetables of bacteria and fungi – the South African citrus industry is a world leader in using ozone to clean their produce. Hospitals routinely sterilise rooms with ozone – it’s faster and doesn’t leave a chemical residue. Recently, scientists from Japan’s Fujita Health University proved that low-level ozone gas could neutralise coronavirus particles without causing harm to humans.

Ozone systems are also becoming popular for treating swimming pool water and washing vehicles without using corrosive chemicals. Temporary or remote locations, such as construction sites and mines, use ozone and UV to recycle water.

A better world with UV and ozone?

Chlorine remains the most popular choice for treating water. It’s cheap, abundant and ruthlessly effective. Ozone and UV don’t necessarily compete with chlorine. Instead, they help reduce chlorine use, reducing risks and environmental impact, and offer alternatives where chlorine is impractical or dangerous.

These reasons go some way to explain why ozone and UV are growing in popularity. They have also become more appealing with technological improvements, Mistry notes:

“Ozone and UV systems today are compact and self-contained. The best products require little to no maintenance. They are either highly portable or simple to add to existing infrastructure. All a company typically needs is access to reliable electricity, then they can run an ozone generator and UV contacting systems.”

Ozone and UV are well-positioned to meet pollution and environmental sustainability concerns, boosting their appeal even further. The technologies do have drawbacks, ozone does not last long, breaking back down to oxygen after just a short period. UV is safe but has limited intensity and all contaminants need to be exposed to the UV light for a short period for it to be effective. Nonetheless, UV is still very effective when used for lower-demand cleansing or in concert with other hygiene methods. Ozone is a heavyweight – one of the best disinfectant agents known to humanity.

Together, they are leading a revolution in safer, compact and more portable hygiene treatments. Keeping water clean, food safe, and stripping our buildings from harmful pathogens, UV and ozone are 21st-century technologies providing safe, accessible and environmentally-friendly hygiene anywhere we require.

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