March 22, 2007
Pioneering approach to wastewater treatment earns Stanford engineer the 2007 Stockholm Water Prize
By David Orenstein
Perry L. McCarty, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been awarded the 2007 Stockholm Water Prize for pioneering work in the design and operation of water and wastewater systems. The prize, which was announced March 22 at the Swedish embassy in Washington, D.C., includes a $150,000 award and a crystal sculpture, which will be presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden on Aug. 16 in Stockholm.
The Stockholm Water Prize is presented annually by the Stockholm Water Institute for "outstanding water-related activities" in areas such as education, research and water management
"Professor McCarty has defined the field of environmental biotechnology that is the basis for small-scale and large-scale pollution control and safe drinking water systems," according to a citation written by the prize nominating committee. "[He] is a pioneer in the development of the understanding of biological processes in the safe supply and treatment of water."
A member of the Stanford faculty since 1962, McCarty is widely recognized for developing relatively economical wastewater treatment processes, in particular anaerobic (oxygen-less) treatment systems that rely on complex chemical reactions carried out by naturally occurring, beneficial microbes.
"What we've helped to do is to develop a much better understanding of the processes and ways organisms interact so that we can design reliable and efficient treatment systems for a variety of wastes, industrial as well as municipal," McCarty explained. "The efforts here have been concerned with treating wastewater in order to protect the ecological and drinking water resources of surface supplies such as rivers, lakes, and oceans."
He said that his work in anaerobic reactions also has led to wastewater treatment systems in which the main byproduct, methane, can be recaptured and used to power the treatment process, thus reducing the need for external power that would generate greater greenhouse emissions.
"Professor McCarty has made landmark contributions towards understanding the microbiology and chemistry of anaerobic wastewater treatment systems," according to the nominating committee's citation. "He has discovered the fundamental bases for the complex processes that now can be used in the design and operation of treatment systems. He has also tackled the important problem of organic compounds and pollutants in wastewater and underground aquifer systems. His pioneering research has allowed the development of more effective treatment practices."
The committee also noted that McCarty's recent work on microbial biofilms "has wide-ranging implications for the design of treatment systems. The landmark studies on biofilms provide useful tools for understanding the performance of microbial processes and scaling the results to large systems.
"Professor McCarty has defined the field of environmental biotechnology. He has laid the corner stones of what are certainly the fundamentals of future water supply and treatment systems. He has integrated microbiology, aquatic chemistry, and water science and technology into a coherent and complementary discipline. He has influenced the education, research and practice of water science and technology as no other individual has before."
Decades of work
McCarty has published more than 300 papers in water science, environmental engineering and microbiology science journals, with 50 papers just in the last 10 years. His two textbooks on the chemistry, biology and design of treatment systems for municipal and industrial wastewater are still widely read.
In addition to serving on the Stanford faculty, McCarty directed the Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored Western Regional Hazardous Substances Research Center from 1989 to 2003. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an honorary member of the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation. He also is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Microbiology.
After decades of research and teaching, McCarty said he is hopeful that despite climbing global populations, countries can ensure safe water supplies for their people. The issue is largely one of political will and lack of dedication to solving the problem, he added.
"I think we can do much to help if we put a priority on this," McCarty said. "There are inexpensive techniques for cleaning water and a lot of effort has been put into developing them. Part of the need is in education in the use of the techniques and part of it is a willingness in the rest of us who have so much to help those who don't."
The Stockholm Water Foundation was established in 1990 to encourage research and development of the world's water environment by awarding the Stockholm Water Prize. The foundation's activities are administered by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)
David Orenstein is the Communications and Public Relations Manager at the Stanford School of Engineering. SIWI contributed to this story.
A photo of Perry McCarty is available online at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu (slug: "mccarty").