NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Valorising industrial waste streams and reducing pollution using microalgae.

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter.  The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

Water pollution is a major global problem and accounts for more than 14,000 deaths per day. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with absolute water scarcity and two thirds of the world faces drinking water shortages. However, many essential industrial activities contaminate surface water and more sustainable, circular, production methods or waste management practices are required to support the global demand for products.

Affordable and renewable energy provision is another global challenge. Biofuels are promoted as modern alternatives. However, current-generation biofuels have limited environmental benefits while putting pressure on land and water resources. Algal biofuels could overcome many drawbacks of terrestrial plant-based biofuels.

This proposal is based on a successful GW4+ consortium that has developed an algal-based system for combined remediation and valorisation of metal contaminated waste streams. Our novel circular economy approach combines biofuel production and removal of metals to offset waste water remediation cost and could be economically viable, environmentally beneficial and globally applicable.

This proposal falls within NERC societal challenges ‘Benefiting from natural resources’ and ‘Managing environmental change’.

Our process includes a hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) step that converts algal cultures that have been mixed with contaminated waste stream in several fractions that all have applications. The oil fraction can be upgraded to high quality chemicals and oils. The water fraction contains valuable nutrients that are fed back into our algal facilities. The gas fraction, containing carbon dioxide, is used to boost algal growth. The solid fraction contains the highly enriched metal waste that will be processed to retrieve value.

We have now successfully shown twice to be able to process industrial waste in the laboratory. Metal contaminated waste from an acid mine site was successfully processed (GW4+ funded) and mercury-contaminated waste from petrochemical industry was cleaned (BBSRC NIBB funded). We currently need to upscale our approach to semi-industrial scale to demonstrate its real-life potential.

Proposed programme: Year 1, real world contaminated waste samples will be used to support algal growth and determine optimal growth conditions. All samples will be processed using HTL and process parameters will be optimised. Year 2, continuous culture/HTL processes will be developed. Year 3, Continuous HTL will be optimised. Throughout the programme, the student will be engaging with Adam Lusby from the Exeter Business School on the concept of the circular economy. The student will write their thesis during the final year and publications throughout the studentship as appropriate.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 8 January 2017.

Please see for full details on how to apply.

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