Simon Tait, professor of water engineering, University of Sheffield Innovation, Technology, Water, Water networks, Opinion

Simon Tait explains how a wave of new research facilities is set to revolutionise the UK’s water infrastructure.

The UK’s extensive water network is not only old, but built from a variety of materials over 150 years and constructed to different engineering design standards.

This combination of factors presents water companies with numerous complex challenges, not least how to deliver a consistent level of performance at a reasonable economic cost to consumers.

Although utility companies are traditionally more cautious than disruptive, given the significant potential health implications of their actions, it’s clear that science-led solutions and innovative technologies need to be developed and deployed – and fast.

Fortunately, we now have the capability to do exactly that with the opening of the National Distributed Water Infrastructure Facility (NDWIF) at the University of Sheffield. The first facility of its size and scale in Europe, NDWIF will enable full-scale, real-time experimentation on water and sewer pipes and ancillary structures – allowing its users to study deterioration and failure mechanisms; biological, chemical and physical in-pipe processes; flooding and corrosion in a highly controlled environment.

By better understanding the processes of deterioration, scientists and engineers can work collaboratively to develop new and innovative inspection and repair techniques. The potential impact in terms of both the sustainability and cost effectiveness of our water and drainage networks is enormous.

Of course, NDWIF was not conceived or developed in isolation. The University of Sheffield is proud to be part of the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure & Cities (UKCRIC) – a consortium with a mission to transform infrastructure in the UK and beyond.

UKCRIC brings together 13 world-class research institutions with relevant public and private sector partners and has secured over £216 million in grant funding.

A set of interlinked national facilities, of which NDWIF is the first to launch, will enable unprecedented collaboration between research institutions and industry, delivering innovative solutions to regional, national and international challenges.

Never before have UK scientists had access to such a significant body of real-time data on the complete lifecycle of our water distribution and drainage systems. Collaboration and knowledge transfer on this scale has the potential to drive world class innovation, as well as delivering significant value creation.