Wastewater is a precious resource and coffee grounds are my business plan

She comes from Belgrade, earned her MSc in Dresden and is now involved in an international project studying the potential use of wastewater in one of the labs at the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague. Aleksandra Ilić was not picky about the topic of her thesis, as long as it was beneficial for the environment. Once she completes her PhD, she wants to go back to the Balkans and leave research. “The stress around grants isn’t my cup of tea,” she says.

Read the story in Czech translation here.

She was not picky about the precise specialisation of her postgraduate study programme. “I just wanted to make sure I would be involved in research that will look into environmentally friendly alternatives. I don’t think I could go into something that I wouldn’t think was ‘right’ or ‘good’, but I didn’t really have a particular area in mind,” says Aleksandra Ilić as we talk in the beautiful historical library of the main UCT building in the Prague neighbourhood of Dejvice. Although the young woman has gained a fairly good grasp of Czech over the five years she has lived here, we speak in English.

“There’s a bit of ideology in it, I guess,” she continues. “I want to be part of something that’s good for the planet and for the environment – to make a contribution, to help. There are different ways you can do that. Yes, it’s important not to leave rubbish and to separate your waste but once the industry and individual companies start being nicer to the environment, perhaps due to new technology, the impact will be larger. It all comes back to the economy, of course: the environment is a complex and fascinating topic.” 

She notes that environmental activists sometimes see matters only in black and white, while “Real life usually comes in shades of grey.”

When waste is not wasted

Aleksandra Ilić was born and bred in Belgrade, Serbia and completed her master’s in Hydro Science and Engineering at the Dresden University of Technology. A few years ago, she enrolled in a PhD programme at UCT Prague at the Department of Water Technology and Environmental Engineering through the SuPER-W programme (Sustainable Product, Energy and Resource Recovery from Wastewater).

The project that she participates in with her research is predicated on a simple assumption: “We don’t treat wastewater as waste but as a potential resource.”

Renewable resources, recycling and reduction of waste are the keywords. 

Put simply, wastewater treatment plants treat wastewater by removing anything that could pose a threat to the environment, particularly groundwater. Once the treated water is released, then what is left is sludge. 

As Aleksandra Ilić explains: “A treatment plant is there to treat water so that it can be released back into the environment, such as to a river.” But the current shift in thinking means that besides treating the water, more attention is paid to whether the resources locked in the sludge could be recovered and reused. “It turns out that there is something else you can get out of this process besides treated water, which we did not really pay attention to before.” 

The researchers involved in the project study various ways of recovering the organic matter, metals and nutrients from wastewater. To give an idea of the potential utilisation, the nutrients could be used to feed algae, which would, in turn, serve as animal feed, or they could be used in the food industry, turned into fuel or perhaps become part of entirely new products. The SuPER-W programme covers fifteen topics and is not limited to natural science: one of the topics addresses the impact that the new approach to wastewater will have on society.

Sludge energy 

“Our group at UCT Prague (editor’s note – research group led by Associate Professor Bartáček at the Department of Water Technology and Environmental Engineering) looks into various technologies and methods that would ensure the most efficient use of sewage sludge,” says Ilić. Her own piece of the puzzle is using sludge to generate power. This process relies on micronutrients for optimal functioning, so she is interested in making sure they are easily available for the microorganisms that create methane during the sludge decomposition since methane can be used to produce energy.

Decay is where it all begins

In general, methane is a by-product of the anaerobic decomposition of organic matter – that is, decomposition that happens when there is no air. This usually takes place underground (for example, natural gas contains methane) or under the sea although the same process also occurs in a cow’s stomach.  

Methane is a greenhouse gas and takes a large share of the blame for heating the atmosphere. However, as Ilić explains, “Our project uses methane in a controlled process where it’s burned and turned into power.” The end goal of turning the organic sludge matter into methane in an effective and controlled way is energy autonomy for the wastewater treatment plant. 

“The harvested methane is used to heat up and power the treatment plant. This reduces costs and makes the most out of the waste that would otherwise be – well, wasted,” says the researcher. 

It is not expected that the treatment plants would produce so much power that it could be used elsewhere although, as Aleksandra points out excitedly, “They are already doing some crazy things with this stuff in Sweden.”

I was eleven when the bombs began to fall 

Aleksandra Ilić was born in the late 1980s. The war that broke out in 1992 in the former Yugoslavia did not directly affect Belgrade, so she does not have any war memories from that time, although her father was drafted several times. Naturally, she has very vivid memories of the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 during the Kosovo War. 

“I was eleven. I remember that we were afraid; we did not know exactly what was happening and what was going to happen next,” she recalls. 

Operation Allied Force, as the campaign was called, was launched to stop the violence and persecution of Kosovo Albanians after Serbia repeatedly broke a ceasefire. It lasted from 24 March till 10 June 1999. 

“When it started, my parents took me to stay with my grandparents. They had to keep going to work, so in this way, I wasn’t home alone and was relatively safe. There were always rumours about what they were going to bomb next. We were getting ready to go on a visit when somebody called and said another attack was coming, so we went straight back home; things like that. But I carry no trauma, no scars on the soul. School was off for two months, show me a kid who wouldn’t like that! We were outside playing all day; when the sirens went off, we had to go home.” 

One particularly scary event was the bombing of a nearby heating plant. “On the whole, though, I think it must have been much more stressful for my parents than for me. The bombing was one thing but there was also massive inflation, the money lost all its value, the food supply was a shambles...” she says, concluding this chapter. 

Everything was boring. My parents knew it was just a phase

Once she finished primary school, she enrolled at a grammar school in Belgrade. Was that the start of her passion for science? “To be quite honest, I don’t really know; high school was awfully boring. I had terrible grades and enjoyed horse riding, and that was it – that’s what my teenage years looked like. My parents were understanding, though: they knew – or rather hoped – that this was just a phase,” she recalls with a laugh.

And it was just a phase. Perhaps it helped that after graduating from grammar school, Aleksandra could take a “gap year” at a high school in Oklahoma in the US. 

Other than horses, she has always been interested in the environment, although she was never really an activist. Once she returned from the US, she decided to start at the beginning, which in this case meant chemistry, and enrolled in environmental chemistry at the University of Belgrade. 

But then she got restless again. 

“I decided to leave Serbia. I wanted to study abroad because when it comes to environmental science, Serbia does not offer a lot of choices. I was debating between Scandinavia and Germany.” 

She applied to several universities and finally moved to Dresden, where she obtained her MSc in Hydro Science and Engineering at the local University of Technology. 

“After that, one thing led to another. My boyfriend is German, so everyone assumed I would also get a job in Germany, which turned out to be not as easy as it sounds. In the meantime, I discovered this PhD programme in Prague and decided to go for this opportunity.”

Measuring metals

And so back to the lab we go. The bread and butter of Aleksandra’s work is testing samples.

This is because the transformation of sewage sludge into methane works best if there is a trace amount of metals present in the sludge. “This is my piece of the project puzzle: I am looking for a way to measure the metal elements in the sample, to find out whether there are enough of them – and if not, what’s the best way to add the required amount. And how many metals – and at what rates – are required to optimise the process,” explains Aleksandra Ilić. 

“Essentially, I am creating testing sets where I add different amounts of metals and then I measure the amount of biogas. The toughest nut to crack is how to measure the amount of metals that are biologically available. It is quite easy to measure the total amount, but we need to differentiate metals that are bound to organic substances, so I’m trying to figure out a reliable way to do that.” 

She is late with a few papers and her final thesis, mostly due to Covid, but her lab work is finished. “It’s probably important to mention that I am in a joint doctorate programme where I’ll receive a degree from both Belgium and Prague. Spending at least half a year in Ghent was part of the deal.”

She also spent some time in an internship in Brno, the second-largest Czech city, in a company that produces water treatment facilities for towns and communities as well as smaller ones for domestic use. “The company is called Asio and although it sounds a little like ‘asi jo’ – I guess so – and Czechs like to joke that that’s what it means, it’s actually the Latin for ‘owl’,” she says with a laugh.

Research is not for me: the grant system is too stressful

So what – and where – next? How does she see her future career and life? 

“Finally, my favourite question!” she says, smiling. “I’m actually quite sure that I would like to go into industry. I don’t think I’m an academic type; I don’t have the ambition to become a professor,” she says with certainty. 

“I like to work with people, but I don’t have the confidence you need to teach. I don’t see my future in academia; the competition is fierce,” she says, adding that she doesn’t really want to join the race. 

“But research as such is fun, which is why I decided to enrol in a PhD programme,” she explains. “After that, I need to see practical applications and impact. Science moves forward in small increments; maybe one researcher in a hundred scores a larger leap. This isn’t for everyone. And competing for grants and research funding is a lot of stress and worry.”

So the plan is to go back to Serbia and look for a job in the industry – or perhaps to start her own business. 

Made of coffee grounds

The thirty-three year old researcher already has a business dream. “At the moment, it’s just a vague idea, a dream rather than a concrete plan… but I would like to collect coffee grounds and put them to good use. Maybe as a source of energy, maybe in some other way. There are already various applications: it can be used as fertilizer or as mushroom compost. One German company even uses it to make cups,” she describes. 

She is now deliberating over her own approach to the problem. “There is a lot of coffee grounds waste, and the chains are happy to get rid of it, meaning next to no material costs. If I can use it to create something I can sell, I can make money and do something for the environment at the same time.”

Since her boyfriend lives in Dresden, I ask whether he would go to Serbia with her. “I think so,” she laughs, “I’ve been working on this.” 

Make Serbia Great Again

What is the political situation like in present-day Serbia? “It’s complicated. Officially, Serbia is a democracy – but it’s a very young democracy that, in my opinion, came about before society was ready for it. We had a revolution in 2000 and we thought it would be plain sailing from there, that we’d just turn into a prosperous democratic country. That did not quite work out and people are rather pessimistic about the outlook,” she says. 

“However, we have no other alternative for the 21st century. We have to learn what it means to be a democratic society. 

At this point, I mentioned that Czechia has quite a lot of experience with this, although we had a ten-year head start over Serbia “I guess it’s similar in some respects. What bugs me the most is that I can feel that in the end, people just want somebody else to take responsibility for their lives. They want somebody else to make the decisions for them... It’s the ‘I did that because I had to’ mentality.” 

Does that mean she would like to go back and try to inspire some social changes in her community? Make Serbia Great Again? “Yeah, maybe a little,” she laughs. “I’m not a crazy dreamer who will go completely against the flow, but I would like to return and give something back to Serbia. Many young people are leaving because they want to achieve something but it’s sad because they are the people the country needs; that’s why I decided to go back. I also feel a strong connection with my family and friends. At the end of the day, that’s my main motivation. I don’t need too much to be happy anyway.” 

She knows that after living in Germany, there are quite a few things she might miss or be bothered by in Serbia. “And, of course, it’s possible that after some time, it will just become unbearable, and I will want to get away again… But I want to try. It’s better to learn from your mistakes than not try at all just to be on the safe side. I’ll give it a go – I might fail, but I won’t give up without a fight,” she says decidedly. 

On your own

And what has it been like to study in Germany and Czech Republic as a foreigner? “My master’s programme in Germany was in English, which was nice, but I had a nagging feeling that international students were rather a marketing tool to boost the rates.” The conditions were not the same for everyone: while the German students had to complete an internship, the international students did not, which turned out to be a disadvantage once they started applying for work in Germany. 

At that point, her lack of fluency in German also proved to be a problem. “I would have really appreciated it if someone told me early on how important it is to speak the language if I decide to stay. It would have helped a lot.” 

Instead, they were lulled into complacency by their mistaken belief that speaking English was enough in Germany. “There was nobody who would take care of us in this regard,” she sighs. “It’s a lesson, though, that sometimes you are just on your own and have to take care of yourself.”

And what about Czechia? “That’s been an adventure –  in a good as well as in a less good sense. I am lucky that our department works on a large European project, which gives us certain stability,” she says. However, when she initially looked for the PhD programmes taught in English, they were few and far between. 

“I think it has gotten better; I can see a lot of progress has been made. I am still convinced, though, that universities should pay more attention to these programmes and make sure that there are always equivalent lectures and seminars in English. No exceptions. I sometimes wonder whether the lecturers themselves feel that it’s important to have international PhD students. There should be a broader discussion about this,” she thinks. 

As she comes from a fellow Slavic country, she has not had to deal with discrimination based on skin colour or similar differences, but she does perceive a certain aloofness towards foreigners. “For Czechs, diversity is still something new. The older generation has been shaped in a certain way and perhaps won’t change any more although the young people have a different outlook on the world. Everything is changing.” 

The author is an editor of Deník N.

The author would like to thank Eva Doležalová, whose expert knowledge helped her make sure the nutrients did not get lost in translation.

Translated by Jana Doleželová.

Vlajka Evropské unie

Tento projekt je financován z prostředků programu EU pro výzkum a inovace Horizont 2020 na základě grantové dohody č. 101036051.