Online Microbial Fuel Cell Biofilm BOD Sensor (with InnovateUK)

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Natural Sciences & Env Sciences

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 conl BOD, avoiding 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.

Publications

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Spurr M (2018) Extending the dynamic range of biochemical oxygen demand sensing with multi-stage microbial fuel cells in Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology

 
Description A new MFC-based BOD biosensor was constructed using 3D printing and its ability to measure BOD was tested. The sensor used the unique, multi-stage BES configuration devised by in our earlier work, enabling the dynamic range to be extended with additional BES sensing units added hydraulically in series. Having multiple biofilm transducers arrangfed in series has allowed decrease in current due to toxicity to be explicitly differentiated from decreased current due to lower organic loading; an accomplishment not possible with other sensing technologies.
The prototype sensor we have developed based on a tubular design (from our project partners at USW) is robust enough for field deployment and has high sensitivity. It has not yet achieved the dynamic range of 750 mg/l BOD5 that our previous laboratory proof-of-concept sensor was capable of. However we have obtained enough understanding of the new prototype that we are confident that this high range can be achieved and thus there is potential to monitor most municipal and some industrial influent streams with no amendment or dilution.
The sensor is now poised to be taken to the next stage for field deployment and testing.
Exploitation Route We have engaged potential end users/customers from the wastewater and food and beverage sectors (Northumbrian Water and Chivas Brothers) and have been in discuissions with potential technology development partners (PhotonFire and Palintest) to explore avenues to commercialization of the sensor.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Electronics,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

 
Description The potential for real time monitoring in a range of scenarios has been introduced to potential sensor manufacturers and end users
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Electronics,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
 
Description Collaboration with Quorn 
Organisation Quorn Foods Limited
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have visited Quorn's production facility in Teesside and discussed how bioelectrochemical systems may be incorporated into their waste treatment systems for resource recovery.
Collaborator Contribution Provision of information about their processes for evaluation of novel applications of bioelectrochemical systems. Collaboration is at an early stage and will need further development.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2017
 
Description Engagement with potential end user from the food and beverage sector (Chivas Brothers) 
Organisation Chivas Brothers ltd.
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Communicated potential for real time sensing of high BOD wastestreams characteristic of food and beverage industry efflunents.
Collaborator Contribution Provided detailed information on material and waste flows including organic content in the whisky distilling industry and highlighted potential markets for an online BOD sensor.
Impact None
Start Year 2016
 
Description Engagement with potential end user from the water sector (Northumbrian Water) 
Organisation Northumbrian Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Communicated the potential for real time monitoring of BOD and toxicity with potential for enhanced consent compliance and improved process control
Collaborator Contribution Provided opportunities to present work at the Sensors in the Water Industry Group (SWIG). Provided information on the regulatory landscape for BOD monitoring and information on the potential market for such sensors. The have also provided samples and have offered site access and other support for future development.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2017
 
Description EU-ISMET Conference, Rome 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Poster presentation and open forum discussion on applications of bioelectrochemical systems
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Engagement with potential technology development partner (PhotonFire Ltd) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Meeting to discuss potential applications of BES based sensors, development of signal and data processing systems and possibilities for commercial development of such devices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description International Water Association, Leading Edge Technologies meeting. Jerez 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Pitch presentation and poster on MFC-based biosensors for water industry applications
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Meeting with potential sensor developer (Palintest Ltd) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Meeting to discuss potential applications of BES based sensors and possibilities for commercial development of such devices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description MeteoRR & LifesCO2R 6-month meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Newcastle University leads two major research projects focused on BES: The MeteoRR project led by Professors Ian Head and Tom Curtis in the school of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, and the LifesCO2R project led by Dr Eileen Yu and Professor Keith Scott in the school of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials. The projects develop BES for the recovery of pure metals or valuable chemicals with market value from wastewater containing organic, metal and CO2 pollutants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017
 
Description Microbial Electrochemistry Workshop- Anaerobic Digestion Network (BBSRC) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The workshop hosted by Professor Tom Curtis and his research group from Newcastle University, offered an excellent opportunity for attendees to learn about the latest research from experts in the field of microbial electrochemistry. The series of talks on the first day was followed by an evening network dinner that gave ample opportunity for attendees to informally formulate ideas for the AD Network's Proof of Concept call which was open later this same year. During the second day of workshop the attendees had the opportunity to visit the University's pilot MEC plant at Chester le Street.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://powerfrompoo.wordpress.com/2016/09/21/bes-biosensors-and-bots-an-ad-network-meeting-on-micro...
 
Description Presentation of BOD biosensor work at ADNet Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation - talk and poster about application of senor technologies in anaerobic wastewater treatment.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Visit to Chivas Brothers Distilleries at Speyside 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact As part of the MeteoRR activities for industrial engagement, on the 21st of October researchers from the Newcastle and Surrey University teams visited two distilleries at Speyside (The Glenlivet and Dalmunach distilleries) and met with representatives from the Chivas Brothers distilleries to learn about Scotch whisky business operations and activities. Sector strategy, environmental objectives, distilling processes, parameters and constraints, and integrated wastewater management were all discussed.
MeteoRR is using bioelectrochemical systems (BES) to recover pure copper from distillery 'spent lees' (the wastewater from the bottom of the copper stills used to distil alcohol for whisky making). Bacteria in the anode chamber of the BES provide a current (a flow of electrons) by consuming organic matter in the wastewater. In the cathode chamber of the BES, copper ions in solution pick up electrons from the anode and form solid copper which plates out onto the cathode.
This site visit has been crucial to identify future research opportunities and knowledge gaps.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/industrial-engagement-site-visit-chivas-brothers-resource?trk=v-feed&...
 
Description Visit to Quorn foods to explore future research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Newcastle team visit to Quorn foods to explore future research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017