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Can marine derived plastic litter be used in water remediation?

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  • Full or part time
    Prof S Gibb
    Dr N James
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Supervisors: Prof Stuart Gibb ([Email Address Removed]); Dr Neil James; Dr Mark Taggart; Dr Kenneth Boyd: Environmental Research Institute (ERI), North Highland College, University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI)

Background: In recent years there has been growing concern regarding the state of the oceans due to marine litter. A UNEP report (2009) estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of ocean litter were discarded into the sea per year. Fishing nets, constructed from plastic fibres, do not biodegrade but result in the proliferation of microplastic fibre waste which are consumed by marine species, and can act like a sponge, adsorbing chemicals that pose a further problem to wildlife. An ERI led project recently funded through the EU’s Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, Circular Ocean, is now seeking to provide innovative approaches to address the issue of marine waste plastic.

Marine plastic has long been known to sorb and ‘transport’ certain contaminants within the marine environment (Carpenter and Smith, 1972). These observations have since been confirmed for certain organic micro-pollutants, e.g., POPs, however, there is still a lack of knowledge regarding other potential contaminants (such as heavy metals and many xenobiotics) and associated impacts on marine biota.

Linked to ‘Circular Ocean’, this PhD will seek to exploit the sorption potential of waste marine plastics and evaluate its potential to remove organic and inorganic contaminants from aqueous media. The project will examine the ability of waste plastic to take- up two common classes of contaminant: Organic micro-pollutants (focussing on pharmaceuticals) and heavy metals. Pharmaceuticals are considered an ‘emerging’ class of environmental contaminant relevant in many wastewater scenarios. Since pharmaceutical compounds are ‘selected’ for their ability to produce biological effects, their impact on water quality and non-target organisms is of concern. In addition, as pharmaceuticals are structurally and chemically diverse compounds, they constitute an ideal test group to elucidate various adsorption mechanisms. This project seeks to extend the principle of ‘re-purposing’ low-cost and/or waste material by evaluating the potential of marine waste plastics.

Objective: To evaluate the utility of waste plastic material for the removal of organic micro-pollutants and heavy metals from aqueous media; thus determining the potential for marine waste plastic to be ‘re-purposed’ into a low cost sorbent for the removal of contaminants from wastewater streams.

Initial Approach: The project will involve a number of core objectives:

1. Determine the composition of marine plastic litter: Literature review + local site surveys around NPA region.
2. Select target suite of contaminants and establish analytical techniques: for the determination of heavy metals/metalloids (Inductively Coupled Plasma – Optical Emission Spectroscopy, ICP-OES) and pharmaceuticals (liquid chromatography with triple quadrupole mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).
3. Physical examination using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) with Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis (EDX) or Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) will be used to characterise the waste plastics (before and after exposure to target contaminants). Surface analysis by synchrotron radiation analysis may also be explored.
4. Batch and column studies to assess sorption of target contaminants by marine plastic waste; and subsequent comparison to other waste materials (biosorbents) and commercial sorbents.
5. Pilot scale studies to evaluate the potential of any advances in ‘real world’ applications.

Training: where the student will receive training in laboratory analytical techniques (e.g. ICP-OES, LC-MS/MS, surface analysis) and sorption studies (batch and column). They will have the opportunity to contribute to the EU NPA Circular Ocean project and collaborate with programme partners.

Applications: The PhD will be based at the ERI, Thurso, Scotland. Prospective candidates should have (or expect to have) a 2.i. honours degree or higher in a relevant subject area. Candidates with relevant experience may also be considered. Application may be made by submitting a CV, together with covering letter, to [Email Address Removed] (CVs without covering letter will not be considered). Closing date for applications is 31/1/16. It is envisaged the project will start around 1/4/16.

Funding Notes

3 years fully funded (bursary of £14,057 p.a. + fees) though the EU NPA ‘Circular Ocean’ Programme and the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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