Upscaling trials to catalyse innovation
(L to R) Professor Nick Wright; Heidi Mottram, CEO, Northumbrian Water; and Dr Russell Davenport at the opening of the new BE:WISE research facility.

Newcastle University’s Biological Engineering: Wastewater Innovation at Scale (BE:WISE) research facility aims to help speed up credible wastewater treatment innovation by allowing scientifically rigorous experimentation with microbes at realistic scales.

BE:WISE will enable the water industry to accelerate the transition from energy-intensive treatment systems to low-carbon, low-energy alternatives with lower running costs.

The £1.2 million research centre, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is based at Northumbrian Water’s sewage treatment plant at Birtley, near Gateshead (Figure 1). The first of its type in Europe, it will enable researchers from across the globe to take successful innovations and experiments from lab-scale to larger scales in cubic metres that better represent full-scale systems.

Several types of pilot-scale sewage treatment works will operate, each containing 10,000 times more microbes than is possible in the laboratory, with a microbial diversity more similar to real full-scale systems. The complex biological dynamics of the quintillion (million trillions) bacteria in a full-scale sewage treatment works differ profoundly at smaller laboratory scales and are irreproducible in the laboratory.

Engineering visualisation of trickling filters. Image © Paul Rogers, Sheers Ltd
Engineering visualisation of trickling filters
Image © Paul Rogers, Sheers Ltd

Modular works

Each pilot works will be replicated, modular in design, able to receive different types of real sewage in a controlled manner, and contain instruments to monitor the status of the works and characteristics of the wastewater. There is also an on-site lab to enable further analyses. This will allow scientists and engineers to understand the rules of scale-up and provide greater confidence and realism to new innovations.

It will permit experiments that are not possible at full scale.

Northumbrian Water is providing the space where the facility is located, along with key infrastructure support. The BE:WISE facility currently houses duplicate activated sludge systems (each three cubic metres in size) with duplicate trickling filters due to arrive mid-2017 (Figures 2 and 3). There will be three further types of pilot-scale works including an extensive (or passive) treatment system that can be operated as wetlands, ponds, or sediment filters, and two novel systems that produce energy from waste.

Sustainable treatment

The UK water industry successfully deals with more than 16 billion litres of wastewater a day, treated through approximately 9,000 sewage treatment plants, so that more than 99 per cent of wastewater is recycled to a standard that protects our environment. In the last 25 years, more than £39 billion have been invested in wastewater sewerage and treatment, with noticeable improvement in river and coastal water quality.

However, the challenges ahead are not insignificant. In the coming decades, the water industry must move towards sustainable wastewater treatment technologies that can recover resources and energy from wastewater while treating it to a high standard. Such systems would help to lower running costs and improve the affordability of water for all.

Many parts of the world are not served as well as the UK. Globally about 80 per cent of wastewater is discharged without treatment into receiving water bodies and more than two billion people do not have access to effective sanitation. Current systems used in the UK and elsewhere, though highly effective, are energy-intensive or occupy a large amount of land. They can be expensive to build and operate. Wastewater treatment alone accounts for up to 1.5 per cent of UK electricity use, much of it for aeration, and water services combined generate about 0.7 per cent of UK CO2 emissions, equivalent to four million tons per annum.

Image of bacteria that degrade ammonia in wastewater treatment using DNA-based fluorescence ‘stains’
Image of bacteria that degrade ammonia in wastewater treatment using DNA-based fluorescence ‘stains’

Foreign compounds

There is the added challenge of removing specific polluting compounds to higher standards in order to protect the environment. These include nutrients, metals and organic compounds from industrial and domestic origin, some of which are found in pharmaceuticals, personal care and cleaning products. Some of these are difficult, if not impossible, to remove and can require further energy-intensive treatment. Some compounds such as nutrients and metals also have value, which might be possible to recover and reuse.

Though the current biological wastewater treatment processes have served the industry well, innovation is required to meet the above challenges. Existing biological processes have not changed drastically since their conception about 100 years ago. These have been improved and optimised over the decades, but step-change novelty is rare. Innovation has often been incremental; largely based on empirical trial-and-error experience.

The UK government’s 2009 Cave review of competition and innovation in water markets recognised that the most significant problem area was “between small-scale pilots and large-scale implementation”. Scale-up is a costly and uncertain process that is difficult to fund and risky to carry out. Pilot-scale studies are frequently conducted without replication, can fail without understanding the underlying causes, and when they do are unlikely to be repeated or published. The BE:WISE facility helps to reduce barriers to cost and risk in innovation by providing a place for rational controlled experimentation where uncertainty can be assessed.

The long design lives (25-50 years) and cost of full-scale wastewater treatment plants makes their replacement and up-grading difficult and infrequent. It could take generations to do so. Engineering the biology inside the reactors on the other hand could take weeks or months and speed up change.

A computer-simulated ‘floc’ of bacteria. Image: Pahala Gedara Jayathilake, Newcastle University.
A computer-simulated ‘floc’ of bacteria
Image: Pahala Gedara Jayathilake, Newcastle University

Engineering at scale

 We now have a generation of new tools with which to interrogate microbial populations at unprecedented resolution and depth, based on the hereditary and evolutionary genetic basis of life – DNA (Figure 3). These tools, together with ecological theories and computing power, are allowing scientists to better understand the rules that govern the behaviour of microbes that are the engines of sewage treatment.

An ongoing project at Newcastle University is creating and running computer simulations of wastewater treatment based on the interaction of microbes with wastewater. Such simulations would allow thousands of pilot-scale experiments to be carried out at a fraction of the cost and time of real pilot-scale experiments, much in the same way that car and plane manufacturers use computer simulations in design. This would permit only the most significant experiments to be repeated at the real pilot-scale facility.

The first experiments taking place at the BE:WISE facility will use the power of  DNA tools to parameterise computer simulation models and to see how they compare with reality. Preliminary work will be done with conventional systems for which we have most knowledge. In the future, we will simulate and experiment with a generation of new sustainable wastewater treatment technologies at the BE:WISE facility, including low-temperature anaerobic treatment of domestic wastewater and microbial electrolysis fuel cells that can recover energy from waste.

The BE:WISE research facility will soon be open to projects from scientists and engineers in universities, research institutes and industry, to enable collaboration and innovation opportunities in wastewater engineering. A stakeholder workshop will take place in 2017, where details on the application process will be announced.