Trung Le, Brown & Caldwell
Brown and Caldwell is a 100% environmental and 100% employee-owned firm with over 1,700 employees all working towards a common goal: to make a positive impact on our environment and in our world. Brown and Caldwell has worked on major biosolids management programs throughout the country.
Trung Le is a project engineer at Brown and Caldwell who works on biosolids and energy projects throughout the United States. He has worked on projects on the west coast, midwest, and east coast and has seen how policy, environment, and culture impact biosolids management programs. His recent focus has been on the application of data science and analytics.
Read more about Trung and how he got his start in biosolids. Responses have been edited for clarity and abridged for length.
Before he started working in the biosolids industry, he honestly didn’t know what he wanted to do for a career, but he knew that he was interested in chemistry and environmental sustainability. This was partly inspired by the books Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cradle to Cradle. So he thought he would have ventured into food sustainability, climate change, or product design. When he ventured into civil engineering he naturally stuck to the environmental side of it which led him to biosolids! Now, he can work with all three of those subjects through a focus on biosolids.
He learned about biosolids when he had a research position offered to me in school to work with a thermal hydrolysis and digestion pilot at DC Water. It was his first foray in the world of biosolids and it sparked his interest by showing him what was achievable. The field has made significant progress but still needs a lot of development. Trung says “We still see biosolids being landfilled and incinerated, and biogas is still wasted. The field is largely not optimized or using technology that is dated. I think this is where my passion comes in to help reduce that gap and embrace greater efficiency and resource recovery.”
Over the course of his career, he’s seen the approach to biosolids becoming more forward and public-facing. Municipalities are embracing the importance of public relations and branding. He thinks (and we agree!) that municipalities could benefit from mimicking corporations by using marketing and information strategies that create more informed consumers. Developing public trust requires transparency and constant and consistent outreach. This has helped to gain better acceptance and support from the community. He thinks everyone in the community should know where their water comes from and where it goes.
When asked what he envisions for the future of biosolids management, Trung says, “The two main things I see occurring in the future of biosolids management is the diversification of biosolid products and the adoption of big data analytics."
I believe we are in a period where a lot of municipalities are updating their biosolids management programs which were largely developed 20+ years ago. We are already seeing a paradigm shift to resource recovery which has been pretty explicit. The more fundamental changes will be shifts to regionalization and perhaps some consolidation. This can potentially aid smaller utilities to take advantage of new technologies and more costly programs without high restrictive capital costs. I think the resource recovery pathway will become more diversified with the advancement of technologies, and we will see the industry branching towards upcycling biosolids to higher-value products.
The second change would be the large adoption of big data analytics which would allow greater operations and process control allowing for better decision-making, system optimization, and improved problem identification. The value of data is underutilized in the industry and we are just seeing the emergence of big data concepts in the field. It may eventually lead to a more cost-effective treatment system and the potential to maximize resource recovery.”
If Trung ever leaves the biosolids industry, he’d love to open a little coffee and plant shop. It’s quite a bit different than what he’s doing now but there is an allure to something more simple and less stressful. He thinks entrepreneurship would be something he would enjoy, and he wouldn’t mind having a farm or aquaponics system in the future.