BEWISe Biological Engineering: Wastewater Innovation at Scale

About the Facility

About the Facility

BEWISe is the largest wastewater research facility of its type in Europe.

BEWISe is located in Birtley, a town in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead in North East England.

The facility uses actual wastewater received from more than 30,000 people. It combines multiple wastewater treatment units – in a sense, it is many labs in one.

About the Facility: BEWISe

Key facts

The £1.2 million EPSRC-funded BEWISe 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.

BEWISe 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 BEWISe 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 135-180 litres of sewage a day. Over 99.9% of sewage is liquid, with less than 0.1% solid.

One of the most commonly used traditional sewage treatment process is activated sludge:

  • settled sewage enters the aeration tank, where the wastewater is aerated and bacteria use the organic pollution in the wastewater as food and start breaking it down
  • after several hours, the bacteria (the so-called ‘activated’ sludge) are separated from the treated water in a clarification tank
  • the treated water can be further ‘polished’ or sent to re-enter the water network through rivers
  • part of the sludge is returned to the aeration tank

Birtley sewage treatment works uses trickling filters, which is less energy intensive. Wastewater filters through a waste product from the steel industry (known as blast furnace slag) and is also treated by bacteria.

The BEWISe facility has both activated sludge and trickling filters as well as 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, which accounts for 0.7% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.

Over £100 billion has been invested in standard sewage treatment processes since 1998. Existing technologies have very long design lives (25-50 years). Thus, 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.

A photo gallery of the facility

SLIDER: Three 1m3 microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) SLIDER: MEC cylindrical configuration SLIDER: MEC cassette configuration SLIDER: Microbial electrolysis cell shed SLIDER: Activated sludge tank SLIDER: pH dosing pumps SLIDER: Calibration pot 1200x800 SLIDER: Shut-off switches SLIDER: System operators SLIDER: Trickling filter pH meter SLIDER: Trickling filters SLIDER: Apex Bredel pump SLIDER: Shut-off valve SLIDER: Trickling filter settling tanks (view from back) SLIDER: Trickling filter settling tanks (view from front) SLIDER: Trickling filter systems (view from back) SLIDER: Ringmain pipework SLIDER: BE:WISE garage

Three 1m3 microbial electrolysis cells (MECs)

Three of the world’s largest MECs, with multiple sampling points

Microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) cylindrical configuration

60 cylindrical membranes within an MEC.

Microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) cassette configuration

10 cassette membranes within an MEC.

Microbial electrolysis cell shed

Shed housing three 1m3 microbial electrolysis cells, the world’s largest.

Activated sludge tank

Aerates aerobic bacteria in order for it to consume chemical compounds in the wastewater.

pH dosing pumps

Pumps base or acid from the large white containers into the system to control the pH level.

Calibration pot

Used to calibrate the pump’s flow and to check the digital flow meters.

Shut-off switches

Quickly shuts down parts of the associated system. For use during maintenance or in an emergency.

System operators

Two system operators altering parameters for activated sludge and trickling filter treatment.

Trickling filter pH meter

Measures pH and temperature of the wastewater flowing through the trickling filter system.

Trickling filters

Two large pilot scale trickling filters.

Apex Bredel pump

Pumps wastewater around the system at a controlled flow.

Shut-off valve

Closes off part of the pipe to the flow of wastewater.

Trickling filter settling tanks (view from back)

Wastewater is pumped into a settling tank where large flocks of bacteria sink to the bottom and cleaner water flows to effluent.

Trickling filter settling tanks (view from front)

Wastewater is pumped into a settling tank where large flocks of bacteria sink to the bottom and cleaner water flows to effluent.

Trickling filter systems (view from back)

View from behind the two large pilot scale trickling filter systems.

Ringmain pipework

Pipework brings in and then drains separate raw and settled sewage with multiple different connection points along the lines.

BEWISe garage

The garage at Northumbrian Water in Birtley houses the activated sludge and trickling filter large pilot scale wastewater treatment systems.


BEWISe is available to academia and industry to make innovations in wastewater treatment a reality for the water sector.

BEWISe logo
Northumbrian Water Group - Living Water: logo
EPSRC Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council: logo
United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation