Research in Focus: Sustainable Wastewater Treatment and Resource Recovery
As part of #BiofilmWeek, we’re highlighting interesting and exciting biofilm research being undertaken across our NBIC partner research institutions by early career researchers, PhD students and our Interdisciplinary Research Fellows.
We interviewed Newcastle University researcher, Dr Pavlina Theodosiou. Her research focuses on the development of a technology, which uses biofilms to sustainably treat wastewater.
What unmet needs do you hope your work will address?
Daily 14 billion L of wastewater is dumped into the oceans untreated. Not only that but current treatment processes use 50 thousand kWh of energy daily and only recover about 5% of the trapped energy in wastewater. Here at Newcastle, we have developed a technology that treats the wastewater reducing its organic load and at the same time recovers energy and economically valuable by-products from it such as hydrogen and ammonia without emitting further greenhouses gases. We believe we can use this sustainable treatment technology to reduce the chemical load by 60%, save 800 kwh/day compared to existing treatments and help companies reach their NET ZERO targets. Unlike others our technology can be retrofitted.
Are there any highlights from your work you can tell us about?
Our systems employ electoractive biofilms called EABs that facilitate direct electron transfer with electrodes and generate current by decomposing the organic matter present in wastewater. We can connect these electrodes to interactive electronic platforms such as Arduinos and establish communication between these two which we can exploit to adapt the system to different environmental changes such as wastewater composition, pH, flow etc. This opens an innovative avenue in wastewater treatment which can give us the advantage of adapting the systems based on the needs of the plant.
Have you undertaken any public engagement and outreach activities?
Through funding from NBIC I developed an outreach workshop for a local primary school. The children built their own microbial fuel cells, collected soil from the playground to inoculate these cells and fed them daily and then used them to power up digital gadgets. One afternoon a week I was visiting the school with my team and delivered hands-on activities on biofilms, electricity and scientific communication aimed to turn the children into scientists. During the 5 weeks of the program they built their own reactors, designed their own experiments, recorded their data, presented their results in graphs and wrote their experimental reports which they presented to us. The best highlight was seeing otherwise unenthusiastic children to run up to us with excitement when we were visiting to say that “They have been waiting for us all week” and that it was “the best science class ever”.
Has NBIC supported you with any of your projects or in your career?
Apart from the Outreach and Public Engagement Award, NBIC also supported my Future Mobility Award, which sponsored me for 3 months to go into industry and complete a secondment at an engineering consultancy. This helped me broaden my horizons in emerging technologies for wastewater treatment and the imminent issues we need to tackle to reduce carbon emissions and reach NetZero. Following the success of that secondment I applied to the Biofilms ICURe Sprint programme, run by SetSquared and funded by NBIC, which gave me the opportunity to complete a market validation around the technology I am working on, built commercial awareness and get recommended to pursue a spin-out. I have lots to thank NBIC for as my professional development and career progression took a new turn since getting the funds and support to collaborate more heavily with industry.
Three 1m3 Microbial Electrolysis Cells (MEC’s) at Newcastle University
Microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) cylindrical configuration at Newcastle University
Microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) cassette configuration
Find out more
If you are interested in learning more about this project and would like to connect with Pavlina please contact NBIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pavlina Theodosiou, Wastewater Treatment Innovation Researcher, Newcastle University.