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Published: 2023-01-25

Doctoral students provide Umeå Energi with important knowledge on environmental issues

NEWS Umeå Energi has long collaborated with the Industrial Doctoral School and two new doctoral projects will soon be launched. Environmental engineer Åsa Benckert thinks of it as an investment in knowledge, for the company and for the future.

Text: Sara-Lena Brännström

Umeå Energi faces many challenges ahead. One of them is PFASs, extremely stable chemical compounds that follows our waste into the incineration processes and that no one really knows how to deal with.

To get closer to an answer to this question, Umeå Energi has turned to doctoral students at the Industrial Doctoral School for help.

“We can't go to a regular measurement company and ask them to look at this, because we don't even know what they should be looking for. This is where collaboration with the university is worth its weight in gold. This is a real research project where we can really find out what's true,” says Åsa Benckert, an environmental engineer and supervisor at Umeå Energi within the Industrial Doctoral School.

It's all about daring to take the plunge and find your difficult questions

In 2024, Sofie Björklund, a doctoral student at the Industrial Doctoral School, defends her thesis on how PFASs are spread to the environment and people by waste management. Another doctoral project will start shortly and will run for four years, with the aim of understanding what happens to PFASs when household waste is incinerated.

Measuring fossil emissions

Umeå Energi's collaboration with the university dates back to the 1980s. Over the years, many thesis and multiple doctoral projects have led to valuable knowledge for the public utility. The first doctoral student through the Industrial Doctoral School completed its dissertation in 2014.

In addition to the PFAS project, another project has been approved to start in 2023. It concerns methods for measuring the amount of fossil emissions during combustion.

“The ultimate goal we would like to reach is to be able to measure carbon-14 and carbon-12 directly in the flue gases. Now we are sending a bag of flue gases to Florida for analysis but there will be a huge delay. If we could measure it continuously online, we could make connections to what we are burning right now. That would be fantastic,” says Åsa Benckert.

Doctoral student an investment

Åsa Benckert thinks the best thing about the Industrial Doctoral School is that it facilitates contact between business and academia and creates practical forms for it.

“It's undeniable that we don't always speak the same language and understand how the systems work from different points of view,” she says.

The salary cost of the doctoral student is shared equally between the Industrial Doctoral School and the business. Åsa Benckert sees it as an investment in knowledge, above all.

“We must be able to justify our existence as waste incinerators. It will be easier if we can show that we don't just sit around waiting for what will come but try to work on finding good solutions. If we can also help produce insights that others can benefit from, that is great.”

What would you say to other businesses or organizations that are considering becoming part of the Industrial Doctoral School?

“I think it's important for businesses to get involved, it should be something you really want to do. Then you can get so much out of it. The university helps us to find out things we don't know, to develop things. It's all about daring to take the plunge and find your difficult questions”, says Åsa Benckert.

About the Industrial Doctoral School

The Industrial Doctoral School is an inter-faculty research school that is based on collaboration between Umeå University and an organisation or a company. IDS aims to promote collaboration in order to strengthen research and development, increase the doctoral students’ employability, independence and innovative capacity, and increase knowledge and innovation in society.