The Grand Challengers Podcast Episode #5

Like wastewater for chocolate – control, serendipity and digital twins

Guest: Peter A. Vanrolleghem

February 28th, 2023


“There’s something passing by, but always be open to seize it…”

In the face of an unpredictable future, we are all called upon each and every day to think of out-of-the box ways to tackle challenges to our environment, wellbeing or where to get raw materials for your chocolate and spaghetti enterprise.

My guest today is Professor Peter A. Vanrolleghem, a bio- and wastewater engineer from Université Laval in Québec City, Canada. Peter is widely known in the urban water and modelling fields and has a lifelong passion for understanding how we can engineer and control the microscopic world for the benefit of the environment and society.

Today’s wide-ranging show takes us from chocolate and spaghetti deep into the world of urban wastewater where major shifts towards resource recovery and digitalization are taking place. We also delve into Peter’s journey and his life-changing encounters with serendipity and mentorship in his career to date.


Professor Peter A. Vanrolleghem is a bio-engineer from Université Laval in Québec City, Canada. He obtained his PhD in Applied Biological Sciences – Environmental Technology in 1994 from Ghent University (Belgium) on monitoring, modelling and control of activated sludge wastewater treatment processes with special emphasis on model calibration and experimental design. He is well known for initiating the BIOMATH group at Ghent before his journey to Canada where he has been leading his group, modelEAU, in Québec for almost two decades. His research portfolio has since expanded to encompass many topics in urban wastewater systems, tackling challenges such as nutrient (removal and recovery), fate of micropollutants and pathogens, and emissions of greenhouse gases, by developing and using mathematical models, automated monitoring stations, process control and in-house pilot- and full-scale experimental work

Peter is an eminent figure in the urban water sector and has been instrumental in bringing about significant shifts in our perception of wastewater management, ushering in a new paradigm of resource recovery, better collection and management of data and supporting the feasibility of digitalization in the field. He has published over 450 peer-reviewed papers and has supervised numerous PhD and Master students and post-docs.

He maintains a strong international network of collaborators. Since 2006, he holds the Canada Research Chair on Water Quality Modeling and has been very active in numerous organisations including the International Water Association (IWA Fellow and member of IWA’s Board of Directors), the Water Environment Federation (WEF Fellow) as chairman of MEGA (Modelling Expert Group of the Americas), Réseau Environnement and the Canadian Association on Water Quality (CAWQ).

Resources Related to the Episode

(Disclosure: Links on this page to “View on Amazon” are Affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.)

  • We had a chance to sit down and record this show during Peter’s sabbatical visit to Zurich, Switzerland
  • ‘Respiropeter’ – his early nickname derived from Respirometry [More info]
  • Peter’s PhD supervisor and early mentor Prof. dr. ir. Willy Vestraete from Ghent University
  • BIOMATH Group in Ghent University [Group webpage]
  • Université Laval to Laval City – actually quite far apart [Google Maps]
  • Peter’s group in Québec City – modelEAU Homepage
  • Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF): details on the change in paradigm
    • Recent book on concepts in water resource recovery: Pikaar, I., Guest, J. and Ganigué, R., 2022. Resource Recovery from Water: Principles and Application. IWA Publishing. [Open Access Link]
    • Regmi, P., Stewart, H., Amerlinck, Y., Arnell, M., García, P.J., Johnson, B., Maere, T., Miletić, I., Miller, M., Rieger, L., Samstag, R., Santoro, D., Schraa, O., Snowling, S., Takacs, I., Torfs, E., van Loosdrecht, M. C. M., Vanrolleghem, P. A., Villez, K., Volcke, E. I. P., Wijers, S., Grau, P., Jimenez, J. and Rosso, D., 2019. The future of WRRF modelling–outlook and challenges. Water Science and Technology79(1), pp.3-14. [Open Access Link]
    • European Commission’s initiative on circular cities and regions [Link]
    • French term: StaRRE – Stations de récupération des ressources de l’eau
    • Vanrolleghem, P., 2015. Les StaRRE de type conventionnel. Vecteur Environnement48(1), p.56. [Link in French]
  • The Terminology debate
    • Carstensen, J., Vanrolleghem, P., Rauch, W. and Reichert, P., 1997. Terminology and methodology in modelling for water quality management—a discussion starter. Water Science and Technology36(5), pp.157-168. [Link]
    • A famous paper on nature-based solutions discussing terminology: Fletcher, T.D., Shuster, W., Hunt, W.F., Ashley, R., Butler, D., Arthur, S., Trowsdale, S., Barraud, S., Semadeni-Davies, A., Bertrand-Krajewski, J.L. and Mikkelsen, P.S., 2015. SUDS, LID, BMPs, WSUD and more–The evolution and application of terminology surrounding urban drainage. Urban water journal12(7), pp.525-542. [Open Access Link]
    • Peter’s Book on Dynamic Modelling and its important Glossary: Dochain, D. and Vanrolleghem, P.A., 2001. Dynamical modelling & estimation in wastewater treatment processes. IWA publishing. [View on Amazon]
    • My own paper where I adopted Peter’s definition on validation and verification: Bach, P.M., Rauch, W., Mikkelsen, P.S., McCarthy, D.T. and Deletic, A., 2014. A critical review of integrated urban water modelling–Urban drainage and beyond. Environmental modelling & software54, pp.88-107. [Link]
  • Control and Operation of wastewater treatment/resource recovery process
    • Vanrolleghem, P.A. and Vaneeckhaute, C., 2014. Resource recovery from wastewater and sludge: Modelling and control challenges. In IWA specialist conference on global challenges: sustainable wastewater treatment and resource recovery. International Water Association (IWA). [modelEAU Link] [Uni Ghent Link]
    • The 1995 conference paper: Vanrolleghem P.A. (1995) Model-based control of wastewater treatment plants. In: Proceedings ESF Workshop Integrated Environmental Bioprocess Design. Obernai, France, June 22-24 1995. [modelEAU Link]
    • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – Thomas Bertram Lance
    • Traditional harddisks, control at millisecond scale [More info]
  • Prof. em. Dr. Willi Gujer’s comparison of complexity of models that people were using vs. Moore’s Law – reference to a seminar he gave in German, “Abwasser, Spiegel der Gesellschaft” [Link to Video – ref @ 17:30]
  • Digitalization and Digital Twins:
    • Internet of Things (IoT) [Wikipedia] [WIRED Article]
    • Water 4.0 – used quite a bit in Germany, here’s a report from the German Water Partnetship [PDF]
    • The Terminator Movies [More Info] – reference to “Skynet” and the scare of AI
    • Definitions of a Digital Twin? – IBM has an interesting article on the subject
    • Peter’s Keynote on Digital Twins was held at Watermatex 2019 titled “Digitalization of water – back to the future”
    • “It’s Hammer Time” – Formula 1 Driver Lewis Hamilton [Link]
  • Data graveyards: Therrien paper on data pipelines
    • Therrien, J.D., Nicolaï, N. and Vanrolleghem, P.A., 2020. A critical review of the data pipeline: how wastewater system operation flows from data to intelligence. Water Science and Technology82(12), pp.2613-2634. [Open Access Link]
    • What is metadata? Also check out the work from the MetaCO Task Group
  • Gustaf Olsson and me: mentorship at its best” – Peter’s message to Gustaf for his retirement [Link] and also a picture of the notable workshop Peter mentioned
  • The Christchurch NZ earthquake and the opportunity I got to collaborate with researchers there years later in applying my work: Nguyen, T.T., Bach, P.M. and Pahlow, M., 2022. Multi-scale stormwater harvesting to enhance urban resilience to climate change impacts and natural disasters. Blue-Green Systems4(1), pp.58-74. [Open Access Link]
  • The Panda and the Dragon reference – these refer to the books by James Norbury “Big Panda and Tiny Dragon” [View on Amazon]
  • “If you wanna go fast, go alone, if you wanna get far, walk together” – most likely an African Proverb although this article sheds some light on the origin of this statement
  • Bonus: For those who might have notice and those who are not familiar, the episode title is a play on the famous novel “Like Water For Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel, the saying itself represents the overflow of emotions, which I certainly felt during the recording and the editing of this episode. Peter’s stories were certainly too good of a fit to not use this title! Thank you Peter!

Connect with Peter Vanrolleghem