School of Engineering


Sarah Cotterill

Sustainable Wastewater Treatment Using Microbial Electrolysis Cells

  • STREAM EngD Cohort IV
  • Start Date: 1 October 2012
  • End Date: March 2017 (EngD awarded July 2017)
  • Research Area: Environment
  • Supervisors: Prof Thomas Curtis, Dr Jan Dolfing and Northumbrian Water Group

My research project

Research engineers at STREAM focus on current and upcoming problems. These are usually too costly in terms of time for the industry to carry out in-house.

My four-year project focused on assessing the viability of a novel wastewater treatment technology: a microbial electrolysis cell.

The technology has the potential to operate at a lower energy demand than existing assets. It also produces value in the form of hydrogen, electricity or chemicals.

Research into recovering energy from waste has exploded in recent years. As we start to see the effects of rising energy costs, this is unsurprising. If we harvest only a fraction of the intrinsic energy, it is possible for wastewater treatment to be energy-neutral or energy-positive.

The technology is well proven at the laboratory scale, but the water industry needs to know whether it is a valid asset for future investment. The aim of the project was to scale up the technology through a series of pilot scale prototypes. In this way, we could deduce the durability and longevity of the asset in the process.

My academic and work history

I graduated with a BSc in Biology from Newcastle University, before completing an MSc at Durham University.

After this, I worked as an analyst in the organic chemistry laboratory of Northumbrian Water Scientific Services.

What STREAM offers

The taught component of the course, at Cranfield University, particularly appealed to me. It enabled me to draw together aspects of my education and work experience with a sound basis of engineering knowledge.

Guidance from industrial partners provided opportunities to make connections and learn specific skills. I'm hopeful that this element will elevate my career in the water sector.

The EngD provides an excellent experience in the nature of research. It also offers many opportunities to expand your professional network, which will support a lengthy and successful career in the industry.

All STREAM projects provide a solution to an existing problem for the water utilities. Part of the reward is witnessing the contribution your research makes towards solving these issues.

Current status

Currently Innovation Knowledge Manager at Durham University, Department of Geography. I recently received the Fulbright All Disciplines Scholar Award to enable me to carry out research at Pennsylvania State University on one of the most well-regarded and impactful scholarship programmes in the world.