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Wastewater treatment trees: can forest filters help solve our wastewater crisis?

Project Description

The release of raw and untreated sewage into urban and peri-urban surface water and groundwater supplies in emerging economies is one of the largest human health and water resource challenges facing the globe. In many areas, there are limited prospects for connections to conventional sewage networks and treatment plants. This project aims to build on the idea of natural treatment based solutions and ecosystem services, such as constructed wetlands and/or vegetative filters, as a viable alternative. These natural solutions have many advantages in terms of accessibility, affordability, low or zero energy requirements and running costs. This PhD project will look specifically at the potential for ‘forest filters’ - where forests facilitate the filtering of wastewater through the soil and root zone of trees to provide the dual ecosystem services of water treatment and enhancement to forestry based products and services of economic value (e.g. wood, fodder, seeds, oils and medicines). For example, a study from the north of India using fast-growing tree species to treat domestic greywater reduced pollutant loadings by 60-77% from influent to effluent, also showing net monetary benefits of increased wood yield by $86000/hectare after 5 years. Nonetheless, engineered forest ecosystem services such as wastewater filtration is not yet widely practiced due to limited scientific understanding and lack of practical design guidelines.
To improve the prospects for implementation of forest filters, the project will explore the parameters driving pollutant removal effectiveness and changes to forest productivity as well as tree form and function. The specific objectives will be to:
1. Develop models for the movement and fate of pollutants in relation to the quantity and quality of tree growth, and the soil and light conditions.
2. Develop recommendations and potential for wider applicability by understanding the changing limits to tree growth under nutrient and water availability enhancement from wastewater, e.g. through the monitoring of changing tree biomass allocation and water use efficiency.
3. Understand and quantify the economic value of increased forestry products yield, in comparison to conventional rain-fed irrigation.
4. Understand the safety aspects and perceptions by consumers related to water re-use following root-zone purification and possible supplementary treatments.
5. Understand how irrigation by wastewater can support and maintain forested landscapes, how human beings will interact with the forest, and what the consequences will be over different time scales

Funding Notes

Full payment of tuition fees at Research Councils UK fee level for year of entry (£4,327 in 2019/20), to be paid by the University;
An annual maintenance grant at current UK Research Councils rates (national minimum doctoral stipend for 2019/20 is £15,009), to be paid in monthly instalments to the Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar by the University.
All studentships will come with a minimum of £3,000 Research Training Support Grant. This can be increased, if there are justified project costs, up to a maximum of £12,000.
Funding is available for UK or EU students only.

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