Centre for Synthetic Biology and the Bioeconomy

Staff Profile

Professor Thomas Curtis

Professor of Environmental Engineering



I joined Newcastle University in 1994 after a Master and PhD in Public Health Engineering (with Duncan Mara) in Leeds and experience in construction in the Middle East and Public Health Policy in the UK's Department of Health and few months as a refuse collector. I have always been interested in the interaction between water, waste, the environment and health. However I have gradually moved from a focus on developing countries to the need to harness the new generation of biology and microbial ecology to enable us to develop transformative engineered biological systems that I think will benefit all societies. I really enjoy teaching Undergraduates and Postgraduates for all the research in the world means nothing if there are not bright men and women ready to put those ideas into action.

I work on the science and technologies required for the treatment of water and wastes. Such treatment systems are key nodes in the network of environmental services that civil engineers provide for cities. They are undoubtedly critical infrastructure and are central to a sustainable urban environment in all societies. The technology of these nodes dictates the architecture and thus much of the cost, reliability and sustainability of the services provided.

This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for those in my field. These opportunities lie in both engineering and the underpinning science. One of the core technologies in Environmental Engineering is biological waste treatment. Nearing their centenary biological treatment methods have, due to their astonishing complexity (there are over 5000 “species” in a single plant), been developed empirically.  Empirical research is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Moreover, many of these technologies are not, in the long run, sustainable because of the energy that they consume, the greenhouse gasses they emit and the resources (energy, nitrogen and phosphorous) that are lost in the process.  In the rich world the price of energy and the cost of carbon is already putting water utilities under pressure. In the majority world these costs are, or will become, simply prohibitive.  It is fortunate therefore that biology in general and microbial ecology in particular is in a golden age as revolutionary new methods are being developed that have given us an unprecedented ability to interrogate these communities. I have been active in the development and application of these technologies in engineered and non-engineered biological systems. The logic is obvious; we must use the new biology to create a new wastewater treatment technology. From an academics point of view this is an incredible opportunity: we must be at the very cutting edge of the new biology to create the new technology we need. The “double whammy” of outstanding scientific and societal impact leads to the academic research Nirvana of international recognition, sustained benefits to mankind and funding.  My particular and unique insight is, and has been, the need for theory. Engineering biology in 2011 is in many ways where classical structural engineering was in 1811. The introduction of a theoretical basis for design, particularly by Rankine, led directly to the astonishing achievements of Civil Engineers in  that century.  I believe that a sound theoretical basis for what we do will have an analogous effect on engineered biological systems. One of the beauties of this approach is that we are developing generic theories for specific problems. So our theoretical and conceptual advances can be applied in other areas, such as medicine agriculture or general microbial ecology.  I have been pursuing and refining this vision for over 10 years with some really brilliant collaborators, methods and models. If these ideas are even partially successful, they will help the teaching mission by generating unique knowledge that only students at Newcastle will be able to acquire.  All the vision in the world means nothing if we cannot train a new cadre of engineers steeped in the ethos of sustainability to implement these ideas.  I have a particular desire to see our existing north-south links strengthened so that we can benefit from fruitful relations with countries in different phases and stages of development. Our would be delighted if we could develop long term and self sustaining relationships in Africa and  South America.  Both continents have much to teach and much to inspire and would ensure that our research and teaching vision is truly global.   

Roles and Responsibilities

EPSRC Dream Fellow.


PhD in Public Health Engineering (Leeds University 1991)

MEng in Public Health Engineering (Leeds University 1986)

BSc in Microbiology (Leeds University 1983) 

Industrial Experience 

I had worked in construction, research and central government policy making before joining the University. I liaise closely with the UK water industry through my own research projects and very occasionally undertake consultancies for small and large UK companies. I have been involved on high level technical advisory committees nationally and internationally, most notably Keppel Corporation in Singapore and INRA in France.




Research Interests

Biological Treatment Systems
Experimental and Theoretical Microbial Ecology

Other Expertise

Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries
Waste Stabilisation Ponds

Microbial Fuel Cells

Pathogens and pathogen removal

Current Work

Improving The Design in Engineered Biological Systems Through Theoretical Ecology

Esteem Indicators

Editorial board ISME journal

Editorial board Water Research 

EPSRC Dream Fellow

Editor Environmental  Microbiology (from 2012)

INRA M2E Meta programme international advisory board 

Research funding

EPSRC Platform Grant: General and Unifying Concepts for Wastewater Treatment Plant Design 2008-2013 (EPSRC £ 774,525)
EPSRC: What is the True Temperature Limit for the Anaerobic Treatment of Domestic Wastewater?  2009-2012, £654,848
EPSRC BioFCSUPERGEN , 2010-2014, £554,191 PI Prof. Keith Scott,
EPSRC Industrial Doctorate Program for the Water Industry: STREAM.2009-2014, £ 5.8 Million program coordinated by Cranfield with Imperial College London, the Universities of Sheffield and Exeter and Newcastle University
EPSRC Predicting the acclimatisation of microbial wastewater treatment communities as a function of the environment, random immigration, birth and death  2010-2013, £646,739 with Glasgow
EPSRC UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC): PROGRAMME GRANT: "Long term dynamics of interdependent infrastructure systems"  (£ Value to be determined) PI Prof Jim Hall
EPSRC Dream Fellow 2011-2012: Towards the E sewage works. £~220,000.Microbial fuel cells for wastewater treatment: Northumbria Water Ltd 2006-2009 £43,000
Microbial fuel cells: Marie Curie Program Commissionof the European Communities, £ 54300 2007-2010
EU COST Collaborating for insights in microbial Ecology 2011-2015 ~400,000 Euros

















I teach on the Undegraduate course in Civil Engineering and the Postgraduate course on Environmental engineering. For the Undergraduates I teach half of the  Environmental systems course (CEG 1101) . I try to give the students an undertanding of the way engineers engineer water and wastes to provide a sustainable urban environment. For the postgraduate students I help organise a a course  on elementary hydraulic design (CEG8102). I was inspired to do this by my own experiences as a young man on site who perhaps knew less than he should have about pipe and flow measurement.  In addition I have a "walk on part" in a number of other modules.