Sustainable wastewater treatment needs boost from biology

Dr Angela Sherry & Brett Cherry

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Bacteria that like to munch ammonia in wastewater. Removing ammonia is a major challenge for the wastewater industry. Credit: Russell Davenport/BE:WISE

If the world is to truly reach Target 3 of Goal 6 for Clean Water and Sanitation by 2030, improving water quality globally, it requires novel innovative ways for treating wastewater that may not be readily available or accessible in the developing or developed world. Many of these solutions for treating wastewater will likely come from cities as well as rural areas depending on the context.

Cities provide test beds for treating wastewater, demonstrating new methods outside of the lab using actual municipal sources of wastewater. Wastewater creates new opportunities for sustainable development. It is a resource for generating energy through anaerobic digestion or even directly from microbes in wastewater.

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. Microbes are key to creating sustainable pathways for clean water and sanitation.

The BE:WISE facility allows experiments to be run using 10,000x more microbes than can be used in the lab, with a microbial diversity more similar to real full-scale systems. BE:WISE will use actual wastewater (real sewage) from a population of around 30,000 people in a controlled manner, in order to simulate and experiment with a generation of new sustainable wastewater treatment technologies.

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Example of BE:WISE facilities for testing biological solutions for wastewater treatment. Credit: Russell Davenport/BE:WISE

There is room for improvement in moving from energy-intensive treatment processes to low-carbon alternatives that also have lower running costs, including anaerobic digestion at low-temperature. Wastewater treatment supports diverse microbial communities that can clean wastewater while also generating renewable energy.

These ‘open biological systems’ clearly have large potential in not only mitigating wastewater problems but decarbonising our energy economy. Engineering biology provides a plethora of solutions for wastewater treatment at a variety of scales. While it will likely not solve all of our problems for wastewater management, it will help make it more sustainable in the long-term.

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How bacteria generate energy in a fuel cell.

How do we set a new global standard for wastewater research? The first step is taking on research that is both scientifically rigorous and industrially relevant. For example, how do different types of microbes and combinations of microbes behave in different sewage treatment processes? If we are to reduce the ecological and environmental pressures on our planet from wastewater, and make sanitation truly available to all – these and other questions need to be answered.

In some cases solutions are already demonstrated in the developing world, such as the which treats the wastewater of 480,000 people. There are lessons to be learned from multiple countries in how they address wastewater treatment in both cities and rural areas. If we pool our knowledge together, both academia,industry and communities, it will help accelerate the implementation of wastewater innovation. But to do this it is necessary to view wastewater as a resource within a circular economy rather than solely as an environmental problem or challenge for sustainable development.

In tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) treating wastewater is essential to public health, infrastructure, energy and many other goals. Sanitation in particular is far from an isolated problem but has far wider impacts on public health. The spread of anti-microbial resistance threatens everyone, and if developed and developing countries do not work in partnership to address one of the most important environmental challenges in memory – it will be at our peril.

Wastewater streams, although the source of a host of health and environmental problems, are also an opportunity for creating solutions to address many of the Global Goals. On World Water Day and every day, let’s keep this in mind not only in working towards clean water and sanitation for present generations, but for future ones.

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