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BBSRC MIBTP 4-year PhD Project in Industrial Biotechnology and Clean Growth: Developing microbial fuel cell-based biosensors for water quality monitoring

School of Chemical Engineering

About the Project

The Birmingham Centre for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research (CFCHR, is offering a project as part of the BBSRC MIBTP on microbiology, fuel cells and sensors that underlies sustainable development and clean growth. CFCHR hosts the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training on Fuel Cells and their Fuels - Clean Power for the 21st Century.

The Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership 3 (MIBTP2020) is a BBSRC-funded doctoral training partnership between the University of Warwick, University of Birmingham, University of Leicester, Aston University and Harper Adams University recruiting students for four-year studentships starting in Oct 2021. The PhD student will undertake a year of structured training during the PhD study.


Accurate and quick detection of toxic compounds and other contaminants and their quantification has posed a serious challenge in the field of environmental and clinical monitoring. Although classical analytical methods with sophisticated instrumentations yield good results in lab environment, their applicability and efficiency in real-time analysis at remote locations are doubtful. As a solution for this, microbial fuel cell (MFC)-based biosensors have gained considerable attention in recent years because of their advantages of on-site testing at remote locations without the need of external power supplies. However, MFC biosensors still encounter several bottlenecks in their practical application and scale-up. Among the main drawbacks, the limitation of electron transfer between microorganism and electrodes is considered as most challenging. It is a key aspect in the improvement of MFC performance. In order for MFC biosensors to be fully realised for wastewater quality monitoring, enhanced electron transfer is urgently required to fabricate biocatalyst electrodes with excellent stability, sensitivity, repeatability and selectivity. Based on an interdisciplinary collaboration established between the Centre for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research and the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, this PhD project aims to develop highly sensitive and reliable MFC biosensors for toxicity detection in water quality monitoring. To achieve this, we will focus on the following three objectives:
Objective 1. To evaluate detection efficiency of potent candidate microbes, such as geobacter sulfurreducens, shewanella oneidensis, pseudomonas monteilii or their mixture, on toxicants (e.g. formaldehyde and heavy metals). This will be done via analysing microbial growth rate, generation time and high-throughput screening of potent biocatalysts.

Objective 2. To elucidate effects of microbial adhesion properties within MFC electrodes by monitoring biofilm formation on various substrates including graphite felt, stainless steel and Ni metal meshes, and novel 3D ordered substrates from 1D nanostructure arrays recently developed in principal supervisor’s group. Distribution and adhesion of microbes on substrate surface within the electrodes will be analysed using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM).

Objective 3. To evaluate and establish structure-sensing property relationships of the obtained biocatalyst electrodes in MFCs. The biocatalyst electrodes will be evaluated as both cathodes and anodes in single chamber MFCs, using different measurement techniques such as cyclic voltammetry (CV) and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) analyses to define their sensitivity and reliability.

*IMPORTANT* Prior to submitting an application, all interested candidates should first contact Dr. Du () with a copy of their CV to express interest. 1st degree or top 2:1 is required for candidates at UG, or UG + high MSc in a STEM subject such as Biochemical Engineering, Bioscience, Chemical Engineering or Chemistry. Following this, only applicants with the most competitive CV will be requested to submit a PhD application using the University of Birmingham on-line application system. Dr. Du is keen to support students from diverse backgrounds in a supportive lab environment.

Funding Notes

This studentship is not guaranteed for this project, but is awarded as part of a competition between students as part of the Renewable Resources and Clean Growth theme of the BBSRC MIBTP scheme.

The studentship offers a number of benefits:
- fees (at UK rate)
- a tax free stipend of at least £15,295 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation)
- a travel allowance in year 1
- a travel / conference budget
- a generous consumables budget
- use of a MacBook Pro for the duration of the programme.

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