Online Microbial Fuel Cell biofilm-based BOD sensor

Lead Research Organisation: University of South Wales
Department Name: Faculty of Computing, Eng. and Science

Abstract

The project aims to manufacture and develop an online Microbial Fuel Cell-based biosensor for rapid, online detection of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) to be used at wastewater treatment plants. The BOD provides a measure of the amount of biodegradable carbon, a constituent that is regulated to protect water quality. Current techniques for measuring BOD are either time-consuming and resource-intensive, or provide over-estimates of true BOD. Bioelectrochemical Systems (BES, a type of Microbial Fuel Cell) offer a potential solution for BOD sensing, in which the concentration of biodegradable material consumed by the anodic biofilm is proportional to the electrical current generated. Monitoring that current provides a measure of BOD in real time (or close to real time).

The online BOD sensor developed in this project will enable water treatment companies, and other industries that discharge effluent containing organic matter, to continuously monitor BOD. For the first time, they will be able to use real time, continuous monitoring to economically optimise various treatment protocols to control BOD. Real time monitoring is currently not possible, as for each variation in operating parameters a large number of expensive and time consuming off-line BOD tests would have to be performed. Improved monitoring will also bring direct benefits by alerting operators as the discharge BOD approaches the consent limits, allowing action to be taken before the limits are breached and a fine is incurred, a situation that is not currently possible. There are clear environmental benefits to having improved control of the BOD in discharged water, where areas downstream of the treatment plants are no longer subject to wild fluctuations in BOD and a stable ecology can be managed.

The project builds on work from a PhD project at Newcastle University, taking the design and concept and developing it into a commercial product that meets industrial needs. The BES-based BOD sensor will be developed, tested and calibrated. The project has a number of stages, as shown below. University of South Wales will lead on electrode design and fabrication. Newcastle University will will lead on testing and calibrating the sensor.

1. Design the sensor to be used in the project, ensuring the design meets the project requirements.
2. Design the upstream sample handling systems for waste to be passed to the sensor.
3. Build the BES sensor. Built sensor to be shipped to Newcastle for set-up and calibration.
4. Build the sample treatment system. Built system to be shipped to Newcastle for integration with sensor.
5. Probe set up and calibration. Newcastle to test the probe is stable and to calibrate under a variety of agreed conditions, including toxicity conditions.
6. Software Development. Newcastle will provide the algorithm from the calibration data
7. BES probe stability and response testing under a variety of conditions, using artificial and then actual wastewater samples to validate the response times, range, stability and other agreed factors.
8. Review and optimisation. The sensor data must be examined and the handling and stability reviewed. Once this data is reviewed then any changes that are required must be made to the design so that a design for a robust, commercially manufacturable system can be made.
9. Finalise a design for a BES-based BOD sensor with a report showing sufficient supporting data that a commercial decision on the viability of the project can be made and the information used to market the system to a commercial sensor manufacturer.

The project brings together WHPartnership, University of Newcastle and University of South Wales. Together they bring necessary skills in engineering, software, microbiology and product design that are needed for the project. The universities bring the fundamental research and WHPartnership bring the expertise in industrial application.

Technical Summary

The project aims to manufacture and develop an online Microbial Fuel Cell-based biosensor for rapid, online detection of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) to be used at wastewater treatment plants. The BOD provides a measure of the amount of biodegradable carbon, a constituent that is regulated to protect water quality. Current techniques for measuring BOD are either time-consuming and resource-intensive, or provide over-estimates of true BOD. Bioelectrochemical Systems (BES, a type of Microbial Fuel Cell) offer a potential solution for BOD sensing, in which the concentration of biodegradable material consumed by the anodic biofilm is proportional to the electrical current generated. Monitoring that current provides a measure of BOD in real time (or close to real time).

The online BOD sensor developed in this project will enable water treatment companies, and other industries that discharge effluent containing organic matter, to continuously monitor BOD. For the first time, they will be able to use real time, continuous monitoring to economically optimise various treatment protocols to control BOD. Real time monitoring is currently not possible, as for each variation in operating parameters a large number of expensive and time consuming off-line BOD tests would have to be performed. Improved monitoring will also bring direct benefits by alerting operators as the discharge BOD approaches the consent limits, allowing action to be taken before the limits are breached and a fine is incurred, a situation that is not currently possible. There are clear environmental benefits to having improved control of the BOD in discharged water, where areas downstream of the treatment plants are no longer subject to wild fluctuations in BOD and a stable ecology can be managed.

Planned Impact

Economic Impact - Market Opportunity
The market for a BOD sensor includes water companies dealing with wastewater on a range of different sized plants. For small-scale plants (2,000 - 9,999 population equivalent (p.e.)) after an initial regime of 12 samples/year only 4 samples/year are required for BOD analysis. Whereas, for medium- (10,000 - 49,999 p.e.) and large-scale (50,000+ p.e.) plants, 12 and 24 BOD samples/year are required respectively. In the UK alone, sewerage systems receive over 11 billion litres of wastewater per day which feed into approximately 1,900 treatment plants with 2,000+ p.e. and across the UK there are 588 (19,466 km) designated sensitive discharge areas. In addition to dedicated wastewater treatment plants, other companies dealing with wastewater must monitor their discharges including processing plants for: Milk, Fruit and vegetable product, Soft drink, Potato, Meat, Breweries, Alcoholic beverage, Animal feed, Gelatine and glue, Malt, Fish.
Currently there are about 1,900 waste treatment plants with 2,000+ p.e. in the UK, if these were to have only a single sensor each, then if a cost per sensor of £1,000 is targeted there is a potential market of about £2,000,000 in this industry in the UK alone, with further substantial markets in the processing industries outlined above. Expanding into Europe and North America the market would be expected to be over £20,000,000. There is also scope to exploit the technology in as a simple low cost alerting device to show when BOD levels have been breached, meaning the technology could be of significant benefit in developing countries.
Economic Impact - Reduced costs to Wastewater industries
The current BOD test that the waste water industry is required to undertake is expensive and time consuming. Companies are keen to have a low cost, robust sensor. As well as reducing monitoring costs, the online sensor will enable companies to carefully manage and optimise their industrial processes to control BOavoiding any fines associated with a breach in discharge limits and any associated bad publicity.
Regulatory/Policy Impact - The current BOD test is lengthy (and hence expensive) and delivers results many days too late to correct any faults within the system under test. This has driven the regulatory landscape towards a very infrequent testing regime that may miss infringements that lead to fines to companies if detected. The online sensor developed in this project will enable water quality to be monitored more closely, and thus enhancing information available to the regulator (Environment Agency), and improving the safeguarding of water quality. The sensor could be an important tool in ensuring compliance with the Water Framework Directive.
Environmental Impact - There are clear environmental benefits to having improved control of the BOD in discharged water, where areas downstream of the treatment plants are no longer subject to wild fluctuations in BOD and a stable ecology can be managed. Better control of BOD will lead to health benefits for those people who live downstream of waste treatment plants, where unexpected BOD breaches will no longer risk the environment or release of noxious materials. On a global scale, water quality is a top priority and as populations and industrialisation increase, maintaining good water quality and tracing pollution sources will continue to grow in importance.
 
Description The measurement of biological oxygen demand (BOD) is typically done over 5 days in laboratory conditions and is important in the determination of environmental impact caused by waste waters or effluent streams entering (usually) watercourses. The project ambition was to develop a sensing system based on microbial fuel cells, which could operate in industrial environments such as wastewater treatment plants and deliver quantitative measures of BOD while distinguishing declining signals caused by toxic components from reductions in BOD. The work of University of South Wales (USW) has produced an array of hydraulically coupled microbial fuel cell sensor (or transducer) elements which have the capability to convert BOD in a liquid sample, to an electrical voltage through the action of a biofilm on an anodic electrode. The spatially distributed sensor was sought after initial investigations at Newcastle University, into the plausibility of using MFCs as BOD sensors. USW were tasked to deliver a series of arrays which could be integrated into a sample preparation and supply system (from WH-Partners, the industrial lead), and a signal processing and monitoring system (Newcastle University, who would also characterize the sensor system). Six prototypical transducer arrays were designed, built, delivered to Newcastle for testing and commissioned (with trouble shooting), to the point that they were able to operate continually in testing without impediment to the end of the project. The resulting data derived by Newcastle University will probably form the basis of their key findings, but in essence, the sensitivity of the transducer arrays was excessive, to the point that it would need to be degraded to extend the range of the sensor system.
Exploitation Route The transducer array is likely to require redesign in order to facilitate assembly. This was not possible in the project due to cost limitations. furthermore, the sensitivity if the transducers would need to be reduced and this could be achieved relatively readily, in order to extend range. However, range could be extended in other ways. The TRL level reached during the project leaves scope for a follow on project to demonstrate the industrial applicability of the system, at which point the projected market could be engaged beyond development and moving onto exploitation. The project itself presented an open minded route to exploitation, including spin-out, licensing and in house manufacture by WH-P, amongst other options. These options remain on the table at present.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

 
Description The project has been in collaboration with an Industrial Partner (leading the project). The elements of the project delivered by the University of South Wales have been used as key system transducer elements and have been shown to be operable in the lower BOD concentration ranges, and the company WH-Partnership Ltd have stated that that they believe the system 'has wings' and can be brought to a higher TRL level. They would wish to see operation on site to increase confidence and reduce commercial risk. Collaboration between Newcastle University and University of South Wales in the field of bioelectrochemical systems has been perpetuated and increased during the project's term and has led to further funding applications for futher development of microbial fuel cell based sensors, supported by Northumbrian Water and Chivas Brothers.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Environment
Impact Types Economic

 
Description Knowlege Economy Skills Scholarships (KESS II)
Amount £67,276 (GBP)
Organisation Bangor University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2019
 
Description ToOLTuBES: Toxicity & Organic Load Tracking using BioElectrochemical Systems
Amount £486,899 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/R005613/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
End 12/2019
 
Description BBSRC/Innovate UK BOD Sensor collaboration 
Organisation Newcastle University
Department School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The project seeks to prototype and commercialize a biological oxygen demand sensor based on microbial fuel cells. We are providing the microbial fuel cell array based on our tubular modular system and will also provide wider design and deployment advice to the project.
Collaborator Contribution Newcastle University are providing the BOD sensor know how, having studied such a device at laboratory scale and conditions. WH-Partnership bring the commercialization route and the design and industrial equipment supplier know how for the integration of the system with the sources of measurand, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial biotechnology/waste treatment systems.
Impact To date the project kick off meeting has been held and the design of the sensor has begun.
Start Year 2015
 
Description BBSRC/Innovate UK BOD Sensor collaboration 
Organisation WH-Partnership Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The project seeks to prototype and commercialize a biological oxygen demand sensor based on microbial fuel cells. We are providing the microbial fuel cell array based on our tubular modular system and will also provide wider design and deployment advice to the project.
Collaborator Contribution Newcastle University are providing the BOD sensor know how, having studied such a device at laboratory scale and conditions. WH-Partnership bring the commercialization route and the design and industrial equipment supplier know how for the integration of the system with the sources of measurand, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial biotechnology/waste treatment systems.
Impact To date the project kick off meeting has been held and the design of the sensor has begun.
Start Year 2015
 
Description Bioelectrochemical Systems Sensing Day: Thursday 26th of January 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Meeting arranged to discuss the future prospects and trajectory of bioelectrochemical sensing devices and to communicate ambitions between academics and particularly with Palintest Ltd - A HALMA COMPANY interested in developing sensor systems.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description EU-ISMET Rome 2016 - VFA sensing 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on work related to the measurement of VFAs in bioprocesses as part of a specialized bioelectrochmical system/ microbial electrochemical technology meeting arranged by the ISMET organisation.
Kaur, A., Dinsdale, R. M., Guwy, A. J., and Premier, G. C. (2016) Towards Microbial Fuel Cell Based Volatile Fatty Acid by Applying Specific Poised Potentials In 3rd European Meeting of the International Society for Microbial Electrochemistry and Technology EU-ISMET 2016 Rome.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://rotarulab.com/2016/10/eu-ismet/
 
Description Tata Visit, University of South Wales, Treforest. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A high level delegation from Tata Strip Products, Port Talbot, including Director, Mr Luc Bol; Chief Engineer, Mr Martyn Duggan; Impact Acceleration Manager, Mr Brian Edy; and four other high ranking personel, attended a meeting with academics at USW to assess prospects for increased collaborative interaction on research. Two presentations of relevance to this output were...
Guwy. A. J. (2016) Overview of EERI/SERC, In Tata Visit, University of South Wales, Treforest.
Premier, G. C. (2016) Bioelectrochemical Systems (BES), In Tata Visit, University of South Wales, Treforest.
The presentations were followed by in-depth discussions, during which very positive indications of intent to increase collaborative research were expressed by Tata, and mechanisms were to be explored further.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description WREC Presentation 2016 - Linking fermentation and bioelectrochemical systems 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation at the World Renewable Energy Congress (WREC15) in Jakarta in 2016. Premier, G. C., Boghani, H. C., Fradler, K. R., Jones, R., Massanet-Nicolau, J., Kaur, A., Michie, I., Dinsdale, R. M., and Guwy, A. J. (2016) Bioenergy and resource recovery: Linking fermentation and bioelectrochemical systems, In World Renewable Energy Congress (WREC15), Jakarta, Indonesia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.wrec2016indonesia.com/