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Developing biotechnologies for water reuse and waste management

Primary Supervisor: Dr Luisa Orsini, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Prof Karl Dearn

PhD project title: Developing biotechnologies for water reuse and waste management

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Treatment of wastewater is an essential process for water reuse in municipal, agricultural and industrial processes. However, the safe and sustainable reuse of treated wastewater is compromised by the presence of persistent contaminants, including pharmaceuticals, biocides and industrial chemicals, many of which are known endocrine disrupters, can cause cancer and autoimmune diseases (e.g. 1,2). Current wastewater treatment works are not designed to eliminate such contaminants. Hence, treated wastewater, used for irrigation, managed aquifer recharge, and abstraction, causes significant concerns for human and environmental health 3-5. Chemical pollution is responsible for the yearly death of 9 million people globally, 4% of which are children under the age of five 6. There is an increasing global demand for effective tertiary wastewater treatment (WWT) technologies that eliminate persistent contaminants, enabling water reuse and promoting green growth. This demand reflects increasingly stringent regulations (e.g. Water Framework Directive; Directive 2008/1/EC for pollution prevention and control; Directive 2004/35/CE for preventing and remediation of environmental damage).

Established chemical/mechanical tertiary WWT processes are associated with high operational energy requirements, significant infrastructure, and potential generation of toxic by-products (e.g. bromate from ozonation). Sustainable solutions that use biological agents (e.g. phycoremediation) are emerging as they are preferred to meet the net-zero carbon emission and sustainable goals of the international agenda 7. However, their adoption is likely to be limited because of their operational costs, limited capacity for contaminant removal and long resident times.

The aim of this proposal is to develop sustainable, scalable and effective solutions for tertiary wastewater treatment to address the dual need of water reuse and waste management.

The main supervisor has prototyped an engineering biology process for municipal wastewater decontamination (patent WO/2021/116229). The process uses a renewable biological agent (waterflea) that works as a microscopic ‘vacuum cleaner’ to remove, concentrate and retain contaminants from wastewater. The water decontamination process generates biowaste enriched with contaminants following the natural life cycle of the biological agent. The objectives of the projects are:

1) To test and apply the technology at scale

2) To identify the processes to transform the biowaste into harmless components

3) To achieve circularity by valorising the biowaste generated by the decontamination process into carbon positive or neutral products

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Renewable Resources and Clean Growth: Industrial Biotechnology

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    Primary analysis of experimental data involving the waterflea Daphnia; chemical analysis including targeted and suspect screening using mass spectrometry; engineering design and application. These techniques will be complemented by skills in: Process Scale-Up; Market Assessment; Stakeholder Engagement; Business Planning and Project Management.

    Contact: Dr Luisa Orsini, University of Birmingham