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New research facility for sustainable wastewater treatment launched

A major new research facility which will allow scientists to discover more sustainable and affordable ways to treat wastewater has been launched

Research using bacteria

Newcastle University’s new Biological Engineering: Wastewater Innovation at Scale (BE:WISE) research facility is the largest of its type in Europe.  

The new facility - based at Northumbrian Water’s sewage treatment plant at Birtley, near Gateshead - will play a key role in improving how sewage is treated, by speeding up the transition from existing energy-intensive treatment processes to low carbon alternatives that have lower running costs.

Sewage treatment plants contain a varied assortment of trillions of bacteria that break down and treat wastewater. However, the costs and uncertainty involved in scaling up lab research to application in a real-world setting has meant that there has been little change in the main technologies used to manage the wastewater treatment process.

Operating as a ‘mini’ sewage treatment works, the BE:WISE facility will allow experiments to be run using 10,000 times more microbes than can be used in the laboratory, providing researchers with a realistic, large-scale setting to better understand how complex biological interactions work at different scales. It will allow them to test and replicate different elements of the wastewater treatment process, so that new ways to treat wastewater can be developed with greater confidence.

Dr Russell Davenport from Newcastle University’s School of Engineering, who will lead the work carried out at the new facility, explained: “The water industry faces unprecedented global challenges such as population growth and climate change while having to meet increasingly stringent environmental regulations. But wastewater treatment uses pretty much the same energy-intensive technology now as was being used decades ago.

“If the water industry is to move to a low energy, low carbon alternative that meets ever-increasing environmental standards, in an affordable way, it has to innovate. BE:WISE will help bring about exciting new collaborations to develop new approaches and solutions to these challenges.”

Innovation through partnership

Northumbrian Water is providing the space where BE:WISE is located, along with key infrastructure support. The first experiments - to identify the behaviour of thousands of species of bacteria - will get underway immediately, using wastewater from the Birtley sewage treatment plant, which receives wastewater from a population equivalent of around 30,000 people. This wastewater will only have been through primary treatment which removes solids, rags and grit.

Heidi Mottram, Northumbrian Water’s CEO, said: “This internationally significant facility demonstrates Northumbrian Water’s environmental leadership. It shows how essential partnership working is to enable innovation in advancing technology. It is fantastic that academia and industry have come together to improve sustainable wastewater treatment, which is a vital part of our everyday lives and plays an essential role in protecting our precious environment.

“We are very proud that this facility is based on one of our sites. Our customers are at the heart of all we do and we are very excited about the results of this research, which can only improve the service we provide to them.”

New global standard

Jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water, the £1.7 million plant will be available to academics and other researchers from around the world, and it is hoped that this will lead to a number of new international collaborations involving Newcastle University.

Professor Nick Wright, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Newcastle University, added: “Sustainable and affordable wastewater treatment requires new technology and new thinking, but many potential solutions never make it past the lab due to the cost and uncertainty involved in working at a larger scale.

“BE:WISE will set a new global standard for research into wastewater treatment technologies and processes and place Newcastle University, and the UK, as a centre of excellence in wastewater management.”

The new facility is linked to another research project at Newcastle University called Frontiers in Engineering Biology (NUFEB) which aims to develop computer simulations of wastewater plants based on a new understanding of the rules that determine the dynamics of complex biological communities. This would speed up innovation of new systems using natural or synthetic organisms.

Kedar Pandya, Head of engineering at EPSRC, said: “New innovative engineering projects such as these are instrumental in bringing leading engineers and scientists from across the world together to address some of the major engineering challenges facing the world. The BE:WISE facility will have significant impact at a regional level because it enhances Newcastle University’s reputation and demonstrates what industry, academia and government can achieve together.”

Key Facts

  • The £1.2 million EPSRC-funded BE:WISE plant is the largest facility of its type in Europe. Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water have contributed a further £0.5 million to its value. 
  • BE:WISE operates with 1015 microbes: a quadrillion microbes, or one million billions. This is 10,000 times more than can be used in the laboratory.
  • Scientists will use BE:WISE to run experiments exploring different types and combinations of bacteria to identify how they behave in different sewage treatment processes.
  • Northumbrian Water has 413 sewage treatment works across the North East region which treat around 800 million litres of wastewater every day. Birtley sewage treatment works treats up to 10,000 million litres of wastewater a day.
  • On average each of us generates 135 to 180 litres of sewage a day. Over 99.9% of sewage is liquid, with less than 0.1% solid.
  • The BE:WISE facility will also have two novel treatment systems that capture energy from the wastewater. 
  • Standard sewage treatment accounts for up to 1.5% of UK electricity usage, much of it for aeration. The water industry generates 4 million tonnes of CO2 per annum - 0.7% of UK greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Over £100 billion has been invested in standard sewage treatment processes since 1998. The very long design lives (25 – 50 years) of existing technologies mean it will take at least a generation (2030 and beyond) for their replacement, whereas the biology may be changed on shorter timescales. 
  • The UK water industry is expected to spend £28 billion in energy-intensive wastewater treatment technologies to meet new environmental standards. 
Professor Nick Wright, Heidi Mottram and Dr Russell Davenport

published on: 5 November 2016