Research in Focus: Sustainable Water Solutions
As part of #BiofilmWeek, we’re highlighting interesting and exciting biofilm research from across our network and partner research institutions.
We interviewed Amanda Lake, Head of Carbon and Circular Economy for Europe at Jacobs, a global water business. Amanda is a chartered chemical engineer, with 22 years experience working in the water sector.
Tell us about your company and objectives
At Jacobs, we’re challenging today to reinvent tomorrow by solving the world’s most critical problems. We’re a global solutions provider with approximately 60,000 colleagues across the globe. Our purpose is to create a smarter, more connected, sustainable world. In water, we recognize that water challenges are complex and interconnected – our solution to this is a holistic approach across the entire water cycle called OneWater, where we view all water as resource. We develop integrated water solutions that provide comprehensive benefits, including for people and the environment.
How does your work link to biofilms and Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?
Our work in the water cycle seeks to recover value through reuse and circular solutions such as nutrient recovery, while also minimising greenhouse gas emissions. The water sector is responsible for around 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions – as much as aviation – however, when we think about all the resource recovery we can do, there’s much more that remains untapped: the value we can retain or renew in wastewater for example; and the products we can generate, such as fertilisers that don’t require fossil fuel inputs. We already produce renewable fuels and recover organics and nutrients from sewage sludge for example, as well as treat wastewater so that we can recycle and reuse it to address water security and minimise our use from natural waterbodies. For many of our key existing and in particular emerging wastewater treatment technologies, we rely on biofilms – naturally occurring microbes in our wastewater. These treat wastewater, remove nutrients and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we get a bit smarter about how we collaborate with them!
Tell us about your work with NBIC?
Thanks to support from NBIC, we’re involved in a really interesting, globally leading project on this topic of greenhouse gas emissions. This project is largely about collaboration between academia and industry; supported by several UK water utilities, universities and consultancies, led by Royal HaskoningDHV (RHDHV). The aim is to better understand N2O emissions from trickling filters – a common biofilm treatment process in the water sector. This will help fill some critical gaps in understanding what may impact N2O emissions in these fixed film biological filters, and what we may be able to do to minimise or prevent these emissions. The project is being undertaken at the BEWISe plant – the largest wastewater innovation facility of its type in Europe, funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), run by Newcastle University in collaboration with Northumbrian Water. It really will be exciting!
What wider impact could your technology have?
Key areas we’re working in where biofilms play a huge role are in wastewater treatment, circular economy and climate action in the water sector. For example, how can we make better use of existing water treatment facilities without having to expand these: biofilm technologies which allow us to intensify granular processes and membrane aerated biofilm reactors (MABR) are really interesting here. When we think about water reuse for the circular economy, we need nature-based solutions and engineered carbon-based treatment, which relies on biofilms to provide advanced wastewater treatment. And when we consider the imperative of climate action to reduce and abate our emissions of nitrous oxide and methane in the water sector, the ability of biofilm and our wider biological systems to consume or not produce greenhouse emissions is key. The question is how can we identify these and encourage them to stay in our treatment processes. We’re working with leading water utilities across the world in all these areas, and we are seeing real impact in terms of driving forward climate action and work on a far more circular water cycle. We’re nowhere near where we need to be though – we continue to pour concrete as business as usual. The circular economy is far from delivered and globally our emissions are rising.
We currently have limited appreciation of the role our biofilms could play in enhancing environmental, climate and circular economy objectives. It’s likely that the more we learn, the more we’ll be able to work with these incredible, complex, living systems. In addition to the roles they can play in resource recovery, environmental water quality and climate action, it’s very likely that improved understanding of our microbial communities- including though in biofilms- will also help make our existing treatment assets more resilient and robust. Already we can see that when we better understand these complex systems, we may be able to operate our facilities in a way that maximises benefits of biofilms. For example, to support and retain microbial communities that provide particular functions, such as those that don’t produce or can consume nitrous oxide.
As the recent update by the Stockholm Resilience Centre on Planetary Boundaries shows, we are tragically surpassing the biophysical capacity of earth’s systems and in particular its ability to deal with nutrient pollution and GHGs. With more research and collaboration in this space across multiple sectors and between academia and industry, we can really solve these planet-sized issues systemically. We really need to increase our focus on this area – we only have one habitable planet after all – and it’s full of amazing biofilms!
Find out more
Visit the Jacobs website to find out more about their work in water.
Find out more about Amanda here.
If you are interested in learning more about this work and would like to connect with Amanda please contact NBIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Lake, Head of Carbon and Circular Economy for Europe at Jacobs.