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Fate of engineered nanomaterials in waste water treatment plants

Project Description

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project details:

The nanotechnology industry is now valued at over one trillion US dollars and the global annual production of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) now exceeds several hundred thousand tonnes [1], [2]. It is clear that ENMs pose immense benefits for society, however, it is now well-established that many different types of ENM also pose serious adverse effects on the environment and human health [3]. In addition many larger materials are also known to undergo environmental degradation into nanomaterial form (e.g. the degradation of bulk scale plastic into nanoplastic [4]).
Given the fact that waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) are likely one of the foremost recipients of ENMs an accurate understanding of their occurrence, behaviour and fate in such systems is urgently required. More specifically we currently have no idea where the ENMs are currently being discharged and therefore their likely environmental impact.
This project will provide this urgently required data by undertaking a major sample collection campaign at WWTPs around the UK. Mass balance will then be applied to determine the extent at which different ENMs can either penetrate through the entire water treatment process (i.e. end up being discharged within the “treated water” and therefore into either riverine or coastal marine environments) or become concentrated within biosolids (and then subsequently spread onto agricultural land).
This information is critically required in order to then understand the likely mechanisms for associated environmental and human health impact and thereby shape both future UK legislation and industry best practice for ENM removal.

Project Aims and Methods:

The overarching aim of this project is to provide critically required baseline data on the occurrence, behaviour and fate of ENMs in UK WWTPs.
The project will aim to:
i. Quantify the current flux of different ENMs at each stage of the WWTP process;
ii. Identify the mechanisms which govern ENM behaviour and fate with each stage of the WWTP process; and
iii. Assimilate data from aims (i) and (ii) in order to provide preliminary data for the creation of a “nanopollution risk” map for the UK.
A major component of this project will be the collection of samples (water and biosolids) from WWTPs at various locations across the UK in addition to soil samples located adjacent to WWTP effluent discharge zones (in order to determine potential ENM “hot spots”). Various advanced laboratory based analytical techniques will then be applied in order to detect and characterise any ENMs present in such media.
The project is joint supported by SEPA and DEFRA. By partnering academia with industry, the work will provide critically required site-derived data in order to improve our academic knowledge of ENM behaviour in a wide range of environments but also provide real practical data which can then be potentially used for the dual purpose of informing UK legislation on ENM regulation whilst also informing the development of new WWTP technology for ENM removal.


The student will be supported and trained by staff with relevant experience in:
Fieldwork (environmental sampling), namely: auger sampling, water sampling, sample preservation techniques, geospatial sampling techniques, fieldwork safety.
Analytical techniques, namely: aqueous phase analysis (spICP-MS, IC, FTIR) and solid phase analysis (HR-SEM, HR-TEM, AFM, DLS, XRD, XPS and zeta potential)

The University of Exeter and the University of Bristol also offer a range of different training courses each year which will be available to the student, including: Soil and Water Contamination, Contaminant Transport, Hydrogeology, Land Surveying and Research Frontiers in Earth Sciences. Courses for professional development (e.g. “writing your thesis” and “an introduction to being an effective researcher”) are also available.
For a full list, see:

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


[1] Keller AA, Lazareva A. Predicted releases of engineered nanomaterials: from global to regional to local. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. 2013 Oct 15;1(1):65-70.
[2] Lourtioz JM, Lahmani M, Dupas-Haeberlin C, Hesto P. Nanosciences and Nanotechnology. Evolution or Revolution. 2016.
[3] Soni D, Naoghare PK, Saravanadevi S, Pandey RA. Release, transport and toxicity of engineered nanoparticles. InReviews of environmental contamination and toxicology 2015 (pp. 1-47). Springer, Cham.
[4] da Costa JP, Santos PS, Duarte AC, Rocha-Santos T. (Nano) plastics in the environment–sources, fates and effects. Science of The Total Environment. 2016 Oct 1;566:15-26.

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