Making waves in water research

Water is the most important natural resource on earth. With an ever growing demand on limited water resources, it is essential that we approach sustainable water management in an innovative and integrated way.

Our academics are working extensively with the water industry to address the major challenges faced by the sector and apply their research findings. Our collaboration with international institutions is ensuring that our research has a global impact.

Here is a snapshot of just some of the water research projects currently happening here at Bath:

Turning sewage into fuel

  • Greater amounts of biogas could be produced from bacteria removed from the sewage treatment process.

After primary solids are removed from sewage by sedimentation, the second stage of water treatment uses bacteria to digest the soluble contaminants. The spent bacteria, known as activated sludge, are removed from the clean water and combined with the primary solids. These combined solids can be used in anaerobic digesters to produce biogas. A research team led by Dr Tom Arnot (Chemical Engineering), Professor David Leak and Professor Rod Scott (both Biology & Biochemistry) is working with Wessex Water to increase energy recovery in this process, increasing the amount of biogas that can be produced from waste.

Using new technologies to clean water

  • Waste seashells from the food industry are a potential sustainable way of removing chemicals from waste water.

Research by Dr Darrell Patterson (Chemical Engineering) is using waste seashells to create a cheaper and more sustainable way of cleaning waste water to remove traces of chemicals such as hormones, pharmaceuticals or fertilisers from water. This process normally uses titanium dioxide which is expensive. By replacing this with a material from the calcium from seashells, Dr Patterson is aiming to significantly reduce the cost of the process, and is reusing a renewable unwanted waste product. The project is now looking at the wider applicability of this technology and the scaling up of shell-based photocatalysts to industrial level.

  • We're testing various natural systems for cleaning waste water

Another project is looking into using natural systems such as reed beds and algae to remove nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous from waste water. The resulting plant mass can then be used as cattle feed or to make biofuels. Dr Tom Arnot, Professor David Leak and Professor Rod Scott are working with Wessex Water to investigate the potential of these systems using laboratory and pilot trials.

Detecting diseases in drinking water

  • Our physicists are developing more efficient ways of detecting fatal microbes in water.

The microbe Cryptosporidium in drinking water causes severe diarrhoea and can be fatal, especially in young children. It is resistant to many water treatment methods, and water supplies must be monitored daily. Current detection methods are slow and expensive, requiring microscopic examination by skilled scientists.

In collaboration with Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities and industrial partners including Scottish Water, a team led by Professor Tim Birks (Physics) is developing an instrument for rapidly detecting Cryptosporidium.

The spectrum of laser light scattered by the microorganism acts as a molecular fingerprint which is analysed by sending the light into a long optical fibre. Light of different wavelengths travels along the fibre at different speeds so the spectrum becomes a time signature, allowing a single-pixel light detector to recognise the presence of the microbe. This instrument will therefore provide rapid testing for the real world, where results are required in hours not days or weeks. In due course, it could be adapted to detect other pathogens.

Managing water resources effectively

  • Lifetime assessments help water companies balance cost and environment.

All too often, companies have to make tough choices between the cost of a product and its environmental impact, usually compromising on one or the other. Dr Marcelle McManus and Dr Linda Newnes (Mechanical Engineering) are working with Wessex Water to develop new new ways to carry out whole life assessments of water technologies and infrastructure, in terms of both environmental and cost impacts. This will help the water industry make informed investment decisions, such as where best to site new treatment works to balance supply and demand, whilst minimising environmental impact

Understanding and influencing consumer behaviour

  • New ways of engaging with the public are helping water companies look after our most precious resource.

Environmental behavioural change requires users, communities, industry, universities and NGOs to play a joint role. A team from our School of Management, led by Dr Svenja Tams, is working with Wessex Water to develop new ways of engaging customers and communities in sustainable water and waste water use. They are exploring issues such as the potential of smart-metering as a means to encourage more resource efficient water use or how to help users stop flushing down waste, such as used kitchen oil or wipes, in ways that avoid causing sewer blockages.

They are using several methods to bring users and communities more explicitly into the design of sustainable solutions to water and waste water challenges. They are also looking into how opportunities for engaging people in environmental behaviours are shaped by the wider context, such as regulation of the water industry, technologies, consumption cultures, debates about climate change, rising energy costs and economic constraints.

  • A better understanding of public behaviour can help to explain water management actions.

Researchers from our Department of Economics led by Professor Michael Finus are looking at how social norms and environmental concern can influence an individual’s choices to live a more sustainable lifestyle. They are considering how these drivers of behaviour can help explain a wide variety of actions relating to how we conduct our lives in a host of different dimensions including water use, energy consumption and waste management.

Water cycle and human health

  • Our researchers have developed new technology to detect micropollutants in water.

A team led by Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern (Chemistry) is using cutting edge technology to detect micropollutants such as pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs and personal care products in the water system. They are using this technology to assess the effectiveness of new water treatments and understand the fate of these chemicals in the environment.

The team is also focusing on waste water based epidemiology. This is a study of chemicals in waste water to determine whether the population in a particular area suffers from health issues such as cancer or infectious disease at a particularly high level. This is a newly-emerging interdisciplinary field with a potential to provide an integrated real-time assessment of community-wide health.

Managing water quality

  • We are exploring how the temperature or salinity of lakes effects water quality.

Research led by Dr Danielle Wain (Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering) is focused on understanding the physical drivers of water quality in lakes, reservoirs and the ocean where changes in temperature or salinity restrict the vertical mixing of nutrients, oxygen, sediments and pollutants.

Dr Wain is also investigating the pathways of heat and energy in the ocean, an important factor governing climate. Through use of direct turbulence measurements and tracer studies, Dr Wain and her collaborators have measured mixing and transport caused by internal waves in lakes, submarine canyons, and the ocean surface.

Wave energy and coastal engineering

  • A new remote sensing technique to help protect our coastline.

Dr Chris Blenkinsopp (Architecture & Civil Engineering) is working with partners in the UK, Europe, USA and Australia to solve coastal engineering problems.  His research uses large-scale field and lab experiments to look at how energy is dissipated when waves break onto the shore. Chris will determine how this affects the movement of sand on beaches over short (wave-by-wave), medium (storm, event) and long (decadal) timescales. He is using these findings to develop new methods of predicting sand movement. He also aims to create a new remote sensing technique to provide low cost, comprehensive measurements of coastal processes to monitor waves and coastal erosion.

Impact of water availability on food security

  • Even as Britain is effected by flood, drought-induced food shortages are just around the corner.

Britain could face drought-induced food shortages despite recent flooding.Research led by Dr Alistair Hunt (Economics) is looking at the water used to create Britain’s most economically significant and climate-sensitive imports such as crops, meat, fish, fuels, pharmaceuticals and paper. The research team is comparing the need for water with models that show the changes in our economy and those that show changes in the availability of global resources such as water, to determine the security of Britain’s future imports.

The research group is also investigating how countries like Britain that depend on climate-sensitive imported resources can reduce risk, through measures such as investing in the development of exporting nations, and by improving trade relations with potential new supplying nations.

Training the next generation of water scientists

Our work on sewage profiling is part of the larger initiative - the Marie Curie SEWPROF Initial Training Network. SEWPROF aims to develop an inter-disciplinary and cross-sectoral research capability for the next generation of scientists, working to analyse health through the analysis of urban waste water. The network links 16 leading European institutions with partners in a range of countries.

In collaboration with the other universities in the GW4 group, we are launching a new EPSRC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Water Informatics, Science & Engineering (WISE). The first intake of students starts in October 2014.

The new Centre for Doctoral Training will be offered across all four GW4 campuses and will work closely with industrial and international academic partners. Students will receive advanced PhD training experience, designed to supply the UK with its next generation of water scientists and engineers. You can follow WISE and find out more about the programme on Twitter at @WISECDT.


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