This project aims to develop novel tools using agricultural microplastics as tracers along with other associated contaminants to inform water quality management. Regenerative farming practices are increasingly seen as an effective alternative to addressing the environmental impacts of intensive agriculture. However, their impact on freshwater quality at a landscape level is poorly understood and difficult to quantify. Agriculture is recognised as a major source of microplastics, due to the use of plastic film, insulation, mulch, and coated fertilizers, as well as the application of sewage sludge and municipal compost as organic amendments applied in different agricultural systems. While microplastics can act as vectors for a range of contaminants into aquatic systems, thanks to their slow degradation rates and persistence in environments they may also offer a unique opportunity to act as tracers to quantify land management impacts.
In freshwater systems, the smaller sized micro-nano plastics (MNPs) are expected to be more prevalent and potentially more harmful to living organisms. However, currently available analytical techniques based on FTIR and RAMAN spectroscopy are not well suited for detecting MNPs and Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) is being recognized as a promising tool for development of near real-time field measurements of emerging contaminants in aquatic samples.
Therefore, this project will focus on: (i) developing suitable SERS based methodologies for MNPs and associated organic pollutants including pathogens and antimicrobial resistance in water samples. Methods to increase sensitivity and selectivity of analytes will include optimisation of nanoparticles of different anisotropic shapes, sizes and configuration; development of novel composite nanoparticle substrates, surface functionalisation for binding of target analytes (ii) application of the developed methodologies to field samples to build reference libraries and development of machine learning and statistical predictive tools for identification and quantification of microplastics and associated contaminants (iii) investigation of whether a chemical ‘fingerprint’ based on microplastics and associated contaminants could be used as a tracer of sediment and pollutant sources from areas with different land management or agronomic practices in river basins.
The student will have the intellectual freedom to steer the direction of the project. This studentship would suit a highly motivated student with background in analytical chemistry or environmental science. Experience of data analysis, use of statistical software/machine learning tools and understanding of water quality issues in agricultural catchments may be beneficial.
Applicants are strongly advised to make an informal enquiry about the PhD to the primary supervisor well before the final submission deadline.
Applicants must send a completed Hydro Nation Scholarship application form and their Curriculum Vitae to Miriam Glendell email@example.com by the final submission deadline of 10th January 2024.