Research Programme

The research is organised into three interconnected research themes and seven work packages corresponding to the 7 objectives described below (Figure).

Demonstrator Treatment Technologies

We will deliver new household-community scale biological treatment technologies for drinking water and wastewater. These will use waste heat to enhance biological activity in novel reactor designs.

Low-Cost Low-Maintenance Sensors

For regular and routine monitoring it is imperative that we develop and deploy point-of-use sensors that can be used by a non-expert. We will use in depth chemical analysis to identify molecular biomarkers of critical processes in drinking water and wastewater treatment systems(16). Using this knowledge, we will design cheap nanophotonic inline sensors for inline sensing to warn of imminent system failures.

Engineering Biology Design Tools

There are 1030 microbes on the planet,1018 in a typical sewage works, 10a litre of tap water. The numbers are huge and the variability between microbial communities is enormous. It is imperative that we develop high-throughput empirical platforms and design theory that navigate and encapsulate the biological variability to speed up the implementation and de-risk biotechnologies. We believe that these will have a long-lasting effect on all emerging biotechnologies. The Wastebot is a robotic platform developed in our labs that significantly speeds up empirical optimisation of biotechnologies. The Microbiome in a droplet technology that we are developing allows for massively parallel experimentation on microbial communities encapsulates in micro-fluidic droplets that can subsequently be sorted based on attributes that are beneficial to water technologies.

A novel biological treatment, in isolation, will not deliver a viable solution for off-grid water services. It needs to sit as part of a system that is cost effective, energy efficient, low-carbon, scale-appropriate and embedded in the local landscape and community.

Implementation pathways for sustainable communities

Participatory communities must sit at the heart of any effective transition to a new model for water services and the user perspective on the underlying technologies will have a significant influence on their design and ultimate success. Community groups on the Islands of Barra and Vatersay, Arran, Iona and Jura are enthusiastic partners on this grant. We aim to work with these communities to: (i) identify benefits and barriers for novel decentralised water treatment systems and how these might vary by physical location and socio-political and economic contexts; (ii) establish stakeholder, community and user preferences and priorities, the factors influencing these, and whether they evolve with exposure to our research and ; (iii) use the outcomes from (i) & (ii) to development a participatory methodology or toolkit that can be used for any community, world-wide, to facilitate the co-design of decentralised water systems that are low-carbon and align with stakeholder priorities.

Mobile field testing and demonstration facility

It is imperative that we test treatment technologies, sensors and optimisation tools in situ. Thus, with SW we will design a mobile technology testing facility, that can tap into local sources of raw water, wastewater, waste heat and low-grade energy sources.

Analysis and Design of Integrated Systems

Envisaging and evaluating which of the many configurations of technologies are the most appropriate for a particular community is complex and almost impossible to intuit for researchers, community stakeholders and regulators alike. Thus we will extend methods developed to analyse off-grid energy systems and adapt them for off-grid water.

Governance analysis and reform

Exploitation and commercialisation of novel off-grid treatment technologies is not straightforward. It is complicated by the need to tackle globally important issues, like industrial decarbonisation and the delivery of sustainable development goal 6, whilst addressing local community priorities and ensuring equity of provision. We will map the legal, policy and institutional landscape governing the water industry and water services in the UK, identify the specific barriers to implementation of off-grid technologies, and also provide pathways to break down these barriers.

The team will carry out comparisons between the UK and international case studies in order to aggregate examples of best practice and innovative solutions in relation to the regulation of decentralised technologies from around the world.