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 A September 2018 photo from inside a Macomb County shows the fatberg. Now, researchers at Wayne State University are utilizing a state grant to further study such phenomena.

A September 2018 photo from inside a Macomb County shows the fatberg. Now, researchers at Wayne State University are utilizing a state grant to further study such phenomena.

File photo provided by the Macomb County Public Works Office

Wayne State University researchers to study fatbergs

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published February 4, 2019

METRO DETROIT — Macomb County residents may recall how a “fatberg” was discovered and was subsequently removed at the Clintondale Pump Station in September 2018. Now, local college professors are studying how to prevent such entities from backing up drains in the future.

That particular fatberg was about 100 feet long, 11 feet in diameter, weighed about 19 tons and consisted of a 6-foot-thick accumulation. Macomb County Public Works spent approximately $100,000 to remove it.

Fatbergs are composed of the solidified buildup of fats, oils, greases and other nonbiodegradable items — also known as FOGs in scientific circles.

“This fatberg is somehow morbidly interesting, which gives us a chance to use it as a teachable moment,” Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said in a press release. “This study can continue the effort to educate the public on simple, but important steps they can take to protect our infrastructure and, ultimately, our environment.”

A pair of researchers at Wayne State University are using a newly acquired $80,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to utilize real-time video, pressure data and advanced chemical analysis to further understand the physical and chemical structure of fatberg blockages. Such data will be used to identify future potential risks and improve prevention and mitigation efforts.

“Fatbergs have become more prevalent as a research topic simply because there’s much more focus on environmental concerns,” said Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State. She is not related to Candice Miller. “One concern is that a fatberg grows and develops into a much larger fatberg, and the possibility exists for sewage backup in residential areas. Or, it could also cause a release of excess water that can’t get through … the release to a natural water resource.”

These FOGs are hydrophobic, which means they don’t tend to mix with water, don’t dissolve into water easily and then are transmitted down pipelines that hold primary water sources.

“They tend to form their own phase within the sewer pipe,” she said. “Other products become congealed with that FOG substance. Once you have that sort of a seed, the hydraulics — the way the water and sewage moves around the fatberg — tends to invite other substances that are in the sewage to adhere to that seed of a fatberg that’s growing.”

Carol Miller noted how education and outreach are at the forefront of such studies, to let the public know what fatbergs are and how and why they exist. For example, a fatberg was on display at the Museum of London and drew added attention to a problem many individuals likely had never heard of, let alone had seen in person.

Due to the fatbergs not being “real sexy science,” large groups and foundations haven’t spent much time and effort in terms of research in the past. But times have changed.

“We were able to do be part of the excavation, or get samples of the excavation, that could then be sampled and do a very scientific characterization of the content of the fatberg — whereas previous investigations have been focused on the physical characteristics,” she said.

Carol Miller is also the director of Healthy Urban Waters, a multi-disciplinary group of researchers at WSU that focuses on urban water infrastructure and resources. As she described, it’s about the relationship between humans and water.

She tends to focus on the hydraulics related to fatbergs, like drinking water, piping networks and sewer networks. Her partner is Tracie Baker, assistant professor at the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at WSU, who focuses more on chemistry and biology and fatberg composition.

Carol Miller hopes additional data and analysis will help provide a better understanding of where fatbergs are likely to occur, which could provide engineers with the ability to, for example, provide maintenance schedules for pipes.

“We also want to document the makeup of these fatbergs,” she said. “We want to quantify that on a more scientific basis and use that to develop certain guidelines on types of things that need to be avoided in terms of coming into the sewer.”