Call for selective separation techniques

Inaugural lecture at Ghent University by KWR researcher and guest professor Emile Cornelissen

During his inaugural lecture on 19 November at Ghent University, guest professor and KWR researcher Emile Cornelissen described examples of selective separation techniques. “These techniques play a crucial role in the future of process-water and drinking-water supplies,” he says. “They are essential for our environment, our economy and our future.”

Cornelissen has been a guest professor at Ghent University since 2017. The position began with one day a week but it became a 50 percent appointment starting last year. “I had actually wanted to give my inaugural lecture a lot sooner,” says Cornelissen. “But the COVID pandemic got in the way. With the increase in my work at Ghent University, this is a good time to do this at last. It’s such a special moment that I want to do it in person, and not on a screen.” Cornelissen works with the Particle and Interfacial Technology Group (PaInT) of the Faculty of Bioengineering Science. That department was set up by a former PhD student at KWR and Delft University of Technology whom Cornelissen supervised. “It is really great and very special that things turned out this way!”

Both sides benefit

Cornelissen is one of twenty researchers who, in addition to their work at KWR, also work at a university, at home or abroad. Close ties of this kind with the academic world demonstrate KWR’s ambition to be at the forefront of scientific developments in order to create knowledge that can be applied in practice in the drinking water sector. And also to use knowledge to back up experience acquired in practice. Cornelissen focuses on the field of water treatment. During his inaugural lecture, he gave concrete examples of selective separation techniques in order to demonstrate their potential. “Drinking water companies are increasingly struggling with the need to look for alternative sources,” explains the researcher. “Traditional sources such as groundwater are suffering from salinisation and there is contamination of surface water. There is too little, or too much, water. With selective separation techniques such as membrane filtration, you can use alternative sources such as wastewater. Useful substances can be recovered from the residual flow generated by the treatment of traditional and alternative sources. Examples include lithium, which is used in batteries. These selective separation techniques allow us to move closer to recovering and recycling water and resources from the water cycle in what is known as resource recovery.”

Similar water problems

For Cornelissen, the fact that he divides his time between KWR and Ghent University is – as well as a challenge in terms of time management – an added value. “The Netherlands and Belgium face similar water problems,” he says. “Our southern neighbours have even larger challenges with falling water levels and salinisation. The Flemish drinking water company De Watergroep is already involved with the work we do at KWR. I hope to use my connections with two institutions to bring people and projects together. How can we combine and integrate different selective separation techniques to recover the right components from residual streams for reuse? A lot of research is still needed here.”


Cornelissen sees his affiliation with Ghent University as a flywheel for driving collaboration between KWR and Ghent outside his own field of water technology. “Ghent University was the initiator of the Capture consortium, which was set up to accelerate innovations in the circular economy,” says Cornelissen. “In the PaInT group, where I work, the focus is primarily on the theme of water. It would be nice to extend our collaboration further in this area.”

Emile Cornelissen has been working for KWR since 2003. From 2014 to 2022, he was a visiting scientist at the Singapore Membrane Technology Centre at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He has published more than 125 papers in leading scientific journals, co-authored five patents and written three book chapters. He has supervised, or is supervising, nineteen PhD students. He has received a range of innovation awards in the field of water treatment and membrane filtration.