Western engineering partnership expands research in water treatment by freezing

(L-R) Dr. Ajay Ray, professor, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering (CBE), Western University, Ethan Allen, principal environmental geochemist, CoreGeo, Dr. Daria Popugaeva, post-doctoral research fellow, CBE, Western University

(L-R) Dr. Ajay Ray, professor, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering (CBE), Western University, Ethan Allen, principal environmental geochemist, CoreGeo, and Dr. Daria Popugaeva, post-doctoral research fellow, CBE, Western University.

Western Engineering researchers and the Core Geoscience Services Inc. (CoreGeo) team have strengthened their partnership in a project to investigate mine-impacted water treatment in the Yukon using cryopurification – water treatment by freezing. It is a nature-inspired technology based on physics pointing that ice crystals are essentially made up of pure water.

“When contaminated water is gradually frozen, ice crystals of pure water grow while the contaminants are rejected from the crystal structure into the liquid phase. The technology has shown to be effective for the removal of contaminants from aqueous solutions and has the potential to decontaminate water resources to provide a safe and clean water supply,” said Dr. Ajay Ray, professor, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.

Supported by his colleagues Dr. K Kreyman, adjunct research professor, and Dr. Daria Popugaeva, PhD’19, post-doctoral research fellow, he added, “the prospective to harness the physical processes of ice formation through cryopurification is possible for Northern regions such as Yukon, Canada, where the climate is primarily subarctic and mining operations have led to widespread contamination of water sources. The application of freezing technology will be particularly beneficial for First Nations communities in Northern regions addressing the lack of access to safe, clean household water in a cost-effective and easy-to-use manner.”


Dr. Ray added, “The strong partnership between Western Engineering and CoreGeo, backed by NSERC-MITACS funding allows for a unique approach in carrying out the comprehensive, innovative, and impactful research necessary to advance the project. This is a great opportunity to continue research that has an immediate impact on the path toward providing environmental sustainability and more importantly, access to clean safe water for First Nations communities.” 

The injection of approximately $600,000 into the project by the NSERC Alliance-MITACS Accelerate grant is a welcomed boost to the partnership with CoreGeo including Ethan Allen, its principal environmental geochemist. 

“As environmental consultants working on mining projects in the North, we noticed changes in quality that pointed to cryopurification as an active natural mechanism. Our aim is to harness this natural mechanism to purify water in cold climates, which we believe may reduce energy and other costs associated with conventional water treatment technologies. Our strategic partnership with Western Engineering will allow us to accelerate towards commercialization of this technology,” said Allen.

For the last three years, the team has worked to examine and test the effectiveness of freezing technology for the removal of contaminants (zinc particularly) from Faro Mine-impacted water in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner. The Faro Mine is a legacy abandoned mine in Yukon, Canada. 

The project engages laboratory testing, data analysis, mathematical modelling, bench-scale, and pilot-scale stages with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) application to control the efficiency of contaminants removal during the cryopurification process. Successful outcomes achieved up to date in laboratory testing and mathematical modeling revealed the advantages and potentials of cryopurification. The application of the process results in a 95 per cent reduction of zinc from the mine-impacted water using single-stage freezing.


The project also provides opportunities for enriched training experiences that include industrial internships for research trainees to develop relevant research skills as well as leadership, communication, collaboration, and entrepreneurship. The team's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training strategy includes implementing an inclusive approach to decision making, open working culture and mentorship to ensure that trainees achieve their very best. 

“Funding support from the NSERC-MITACS will greatly assist our team in proceeding from laboratory testing to bench-scale design and conceptualization, and ultimately testing a pilot-scale reactor. I believe the results of our research could be a solid foundation for a conceptualization of an AI approach application,” said Dr. Popugaeva.

The current project design has been developed based on the mutual interests of all team members to maximize the chances for successful results. The business goal is to continue advancing the cryopurification mechanism towards a stage of commercialization. It is anticipated that freezing technology could have great potential to be scaled up and implemented at the Faro site or other mine sites, industrial sites, or in First Nations communities. 

The research team expects that the current cryopurification project results can foster a more sustainable mining industry and can also be applied to improve municipal water treatment processes. In light of climate change and environmental degradation looming on the horizon, cryopurification would be a significant step toward sustainability.