Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering


Four-in-ten people live in hazardous conditions due to poor sanitation. Indeed, with half the population of developing regions without sanitation, United Nations goals of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without access to safe water and basic sanitation seem set to be missed.

The focus of this project is the 'peri-urban' environment, which includes areas outside cities that are characterized by poor infrastructure, and poor access to formal water and sanitation services. Here, people endure water contamination, ill-health, and lack of dignity.

Despite intentions to safely contain waste, sanitation systems such as pit latrines end up as "holes in the ground". Initiatives, such as 'Community-Led Total Sanitation' (CLTS), have emerged to tackle the challenge. It encourages communities to analyse their own sanitation situation and build low-cost toilets. One of the key lessons is that sanitation is a social as well as technical challenge.

In light of this, we comprise a team of natural and social scientists, which has come together to address this pressing problem by pooling our talents, interests and expertise. We believe that a "socio-technical" approach is required to help to quickly address this problem, and that only a mixed team of different experts can do that.

The proposed technology is based on anaerobic digestion (AD), which is the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria to methane-containing biogas, in the absence of oxygen. AD is a natural process, which occurs in soils, swamps and bogs. However, if applied in airtight tanks, AD can be used to treat wastes. AD is an established technology, particularly for the treatment of industrial wastewaters.

The AD process relies of several groups of bacteria working together in a cooperative manner to break down waste. Typically, the first group breaks down large chemical molecules (like fats and carbohydrates) to simpler molecules. Another group then continues the digestion process to yet-simpler forms of the waste, until eventually the methane-makers convert the waste to biogas. The groups live very closely together in slimy communities, known as biofilms. The type of biofilms commonly found in wastewater treatment tanks are known as 'sludge granules', due to their spherical appearance. The diameter of each granule is approximately 1 mm. Each granule contains millions of bacteria and, theoretically, all of the different groups required to digest the waste will be present in each single granule.

AD has many advantages over more conventional types of wastewater treatment, which are carried out in aerated tanks. The chief advantage is that AD is cheaper, as there is no need to waste energy on pumping oxygen into the AD tanks. In addition, the biogas produced by AD can be readily used for electricity generation, heat production or as a vehicle fuel. It is likely that future wastewater treatment infrastructure in the UK will rely on AD for these reasons.

Thus, the objective of this project is to develop a low-cost system, based on AD, for the safe and efficient treatment of domestic wastewater (sewage and personal washing water). The system will convert waste to biogas and valuable products, such as fertilisers.

The challenges facing the team are two-fold:

(1) The sanitation system in the peri-urban environment is not based on a formal sewerage network of pipes with sewage transported by flushing water. Instead, a high-solids waste will be present. A major challenge will be to 're-engineer' granules to efficiently - and quickly - digest high-solids wastewater.

(2) There may be cultural and social issues impeding initial progress. The proposed system, and the way it might be used, may not be acceptable to local people.

We will engage with local people and integrate the social science required, with the engineering and science involved. In this way, a 'user-centred' prototype can be developed.

Planned Impact

This will be a high-impact project with respect not just to academic impact, and the science and engineering underpinning it, but also with respect to a range of stakeholders. These include sanitation practitioners, policy makers, local administrators and the residents at the peri-urban interface.

The success of participatory techniques to encourage communities to analyse their own sanitation situation, stop open defecation and build low-cost toilets, as is promoted by the CLTS movement, indicates the centrality of stakeholder-engagement - and empowerment - to achieving positive changes in the lives of peri-urban dwellers. Our integrated project involving community and stakeholder engagement, fact-finding and analysis, and a methodological process of product conception, design and development, resulting in the implementation of our findings and the development of a prototype high-rate, eco-engineered, anaerobic digester for high-solids sewage conversion will have a major, far-reaching and transformational impact on the peri-urban interface and its inhabitants. High-rate AD will open new revenue streams from energy and by-products, which will support operational maintenance: this would be transformative indeed. Thus, and in summary, apart from the academic impacts, and the impacts on local practitioners and officials, the primary impact will be experienced by - and is aimed at - poor individuals and communities. In this light, we have placed at the centre of our project a product design process, which will focus on the relationship between the science and engineering, the system and the users.

Our programme is underpinned by a detailed process of on-site meetings with local practitioners and potential users. Engagement with stakeholders is - throughout the programme - key to the success of this project. The lab-based development phase will carefully consider the outcomes of that process. Importantly, maximum impact will be achieved by adopting a process of participatory innovation, whereby engagement and experiences between the team and the community, and between the community and the emerging technology, can drive the bioreactor development phase. We will ensure that the sociological and 'socio-technological' aspects can be incorporated into the scientific workpackages by melding our experiences and perspectives at the regular team meetings. There is an abundance of evidence to support the idea that technology needs to be embedded in the system and user. Technological success relies on 'embeddedness' in society, how it is accepted and used, and how both co-evolve. Our workplan is not based on a linear, science-driven approach; rather, it depends, at all stages on engagement with stakeholders and the development of a technology and a prototype product, which will result in a user-centred system.

Special workshops will be organized and used to engage and communicate with a range of local, national and global stakeholders, with targets in the South and, in the case of technology transfer at the end of this process, the North. A concluding conference will allow for wide dissemination to an academic audience. Internal communication will use video con-calls, and web portals to store notes, minutes and seminars. The team has significant industrial contacts (Severn Trent Water, Thames Water, Scottish Water), which will be exploited for potential implementation in the Global North.

Understanding local institutions and community dynamics will help the team to understand what will work or not, and how the technology will interact with local social, gender and power relations. Working with local partners, we will examine, in a total sanitation planning context, current sanitation solutions based on high-solids streams, and will compare with solutions, including AD, to identify critical success factors with respect to social acceptability; technical, environmental and economic sustainability; and potential for reproducibilty.


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Description New technologies were developed for sustainable sanitation in poorly-planned, peri-urban areas in developing countries, with an on-site project focus on Kanyama, a community on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia. Technical anaerobic digestion (AD) and nutrients (fertiliser) recovery processes for waste (sewage) treatment and conversion, as well as socio-technical considerations accounting for the needs, activities and ideals of local users, were studied by the project team.

New information was generated on the preferential attachment of wastewater-converting, methane-producing microorganisms to certain materials. This was significant, as the team engaged in developing a high-rate treatment digester for the conversion of high-solids wastewater in peri-urban communities. This finding allowed the new digester to retain key microbial species inside the system despite the unfavourable conditions - including the high-solids nature of the waste - involved.

A new fertiliser recovery and production technology was invented and tested by the project team. The system allows the recovery of nitrogen fertiliser from faecal sludge in on-site sanitation in developing countries. Together, the high-rate digester system and the fertiliser-recovery unit were tested as part of a 'sanitation value chain', in which as many valuable component as possible were extracted from the faecal solids (sewage) during treatment.
Exploitation Route The findings of this project allow us, or others, to further investigate how the 'sanitation value chain' can be maximally exploited to support the development of a 'bioeconomy'. In developing countries, in particular, such valorisation opens enormous opportunities to leap-frog past many of the problems in developed countries of unsustainability associated with established waste treatment systems, and paves the way to developing sustainable bioeconomies. The technology will allow for sustainable and safe sewage treatment; reduced greenhouse gas emissions and effective climate action; pollution control and fertiliser recovery; and sustainable agriculture, food production and 'eco-preneurialism'.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment

Description The findings arising out of this project, which was focused on developing technologies for sustainable sanitation in developing countries to address global challenges in the water cycle, have been used in supporting and influencing the design and development of sanitation practices and systems in the peri-urban community of Kanyama, which is located in Lusaka, Zambia. Lab-scale technology was developed at the University of Glasgow, the University of Sheffield, and at Cranfield University, whilst socio-technical and planning analyses were undertaken by the other partners, including at Newcastle University and at the Institute for Development Studies. Trials at the University of Zambia, along with community-led workshops and trials on-site in Kanyama, in collaboration with UNICEF-Zambia, DfiD, and the Community-Led Total Sanitation Foundation resulted in a range of outcomes: for example, community workshops supported the development of faecal sludge collection and treatment systems.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description (3CBIOTECH) - Cold Carbon Catabolism of Microbial Communities underprinning a Sustainable Bioenergy and Biorefinery Economy
Amount € 1,499,797 (EUR)
Funding ID 261330 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 04/2011 
End 04/2016
Description Christopher Quince (Warwick) collaboration on metagenomics of anaerobic digestion bioreactors in the UK and Ireland 
Organisation University of Warwick
Department School of Life Sciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution My research team and I have collaborated with Prof Christopher Quince, The University of Warwick, on the microbial ecology of wastewater treatment systems in the UK and Ireland. We have contributed on bioreactor operation; feedstock characterisation; and preparation of DNA sequence datasets for optimisation of computational and bioinformatics analytical pipelines to mine the metagenomes of full- and lab-scale anaerobic digesters in the Uk and Ireland; full- and lab-scale slow sand filters for drinking water treatment in the UK; and on-site sanitation technologies in Zambia.
Collaborator Contribution Our partner at The University of Warwick has contributed expertise to the development of computational pipelines for metagenomics analyses, and has provided training for personnel in my research group.
Impact The following outputs have resulted from this partnership: DOI: 10.1016/j.watres.2014.05.008 DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00729-15 DOI: 10.1186/s13059-017-1309-9
Start Year 2012
Description UNICEF Zambia Sanitation Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A sanitation workshop focused on sanitation in poor, peri-urban communities in Lusaka, Zambia, was organised by the project team and collaborators at UNICEF and a range of other government and industrial partners, including the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company, the UK Department for International Development, and other non-governmental organisations. Approximately 50 people from the community (Kanyama, Lusak), as well as from across local government and water utilities, attended the workshop, which was focused on sustainable sanitation and faecal sludge management (FSM) to grow the bioeconomy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015