Nitrogen, in the forms of ammonium and nitrates ions, is a serious problem in the UK and elsewhere in water being discharged into the environment because it can harm aquatic ecology and detrimentally affect human health. Run-off of water from agricultural land and effluent from sewage are both major sources of nitrogen in water. In this research project, an improved way to employ a biological process to remove nitrogen will be investigated and developed.
Combinations of nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria are already used to convert ammonium ions to nitrates and then to nitrogen gas. But the processes consume a large amount of energy and are expensive, making them less viable. An attractive alternative, consuming less energy and being less expensive, is to use anammox bacteria, which convert ammonium and nitrites directly to nitrogen gas. The name “anammox” is derived from the phrase “anaerobic ammonia oxidation”.
Although anammox bacteria are a promising way to tackle an environmental problem, with 200 anammox facilities operating worldwide, they are not easy to work with. To perform their function, they need to be immobilized and remain active in biofilms across a range of temperatures. A biofilm is the natural habitat of bacteria in the form of a layer of organisms surrounded by natural molecules, such as saccharides and glycoproteins, to form a matrix. In this research, you will investigate ways to make a type of “synthetic biofilm” by encapsulating anammox bacteria into water-based paint coatings. These so-called “biocoatings” can be used in the future in bioreactors for agricultural or city wastewater. In natural systems, an anammox process relying on biocoatings could be employed in wetlands constructed by humans.
Already at the University of Surrey, our team has demonstrated a biocoating containing metabolically-active E. coli bacteria. In follow-up work, we added nitrifying bacteria to a biocoating and showed that it could successfully remove ammonium in a bioreactor. In this project, collaborators at Thames Water will provide anammox bacteria that will be mixed with a polymer binder material provided by AkzoNobel.
There will be an opportunity for fieldwork (collection of surface water in wetlands). The student will work in an interdisciplinary environment using laboratories in Civil and Environmental Engineering and in the Soft Matter Group. Important skills in environmental science, including water engineering, microbiology, and analytical chemistry will be developed.
This opportunity will be ideal for a candidate with keen interests in environmental science and with a relevant degree in biomaterials engineering, physical chemistry or microbiology. Good practical laboratory skills, analytical skills, and teamworking skills are desirable. The project would particularly suit a versatile researcher who can collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. Ideally, the candidate should have experience (or at least an interest) in physical and chemical analysis, techniques of microbiology, and materials design.
Supervisors: Professor Joseph Keddie, Dr Bing Guo.
This project is open to UK, EU settled, or pre-settled status students starting in October 2022.
Relevant publication: Introducing Porosity in Colloidal Biocoatings to Increase Bacterial Viability | Biomacromolecules (acs.org)
Read our news item: Painting with bacteria could revolutionise wastewater treatment
Applicants are expected to hold a first or upper-second class degree in a relevant discipline (or equivalent overseas qualification), or a lower second plus a good Masters degree (distinction normally required).
English language requirements: IELTS minimum 6.5 overall with 6.0 in Writing, or equivalent. More about our English language requirements.
How to apply
Applications should be submitted via the Physics PhD programme page on the "Apply" tab.
In place of a research proposal you should upload a document stating the title of the project that you wish to apply for and the name of the relevant supervisor. Please contact the supervisors in advance with questions.