Engineering the household removal of micropollutants from wastewater

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Sch of Engineering


I aim to develop the "proof of principle" that micropollutant-degrading enzymes can be used in household washing powders and cleaning products to treat wastewater at source and thus obviate the need for energy-intensive end-of-pipe treatment technologies for micropollutant removal.

Globally, 300 Mt per annum of trace contaminants (micropollutants) from hundreds of different products enter natural water systems through wastewater, some of which have significant ecotoxicological effects and unknown human effects. The best evidence of ecotoxicological effects that propagate into wildlife population crashes has so far been provided for the synthetic hormone 17a-ethinyl estradiol, in the contraceptive pill, and diclofenac. Legislative environmental quality standard limits are being considered by the EU for these two pharmaceuticals and the natural estrogen (17B-estradiol, E2); a world first for such compounds. This has important and far-reaching ramifications.

Regulation of the thousands of pharmaceutical and household chemical products is slow and expensive and the possibility of replacing them with more benign alternatives is remote. Such legislation therefore places pressure on costly end-of-pipe wastewater treatment solutions such as advanced oxidation processes, which would cost up to £30 billion in the UK. These would increase the energy demand of existing assets by as much as 30%. Wastewater treatment already accounts for 1.5% of UK electricity use, and 0.5% of its CO2 emissions, in an age of increasing energy prices. Such solutions are unsustainable and inappropriate for the majority world and poorer sections of the rich world, where water affordability is an issue. Saving the river at the expense of the climate, and the poorest in society is not, in the long term, desirable.

I propose a radically different scalable approach that draws on; contemporary advances in next-generation sequencing, innovation in biotechnology, and the existing know-how, marketingand global reach of household product manufacturers. I envisage a world where micropollutants will be eliminated at source using enzymes delivered in household cleaning products.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of this research would be; i) the enzyme biotechnology industry, ii) household cleaning product manufacturers, iii) the water industry, and iv) the pharmaceutical industries. It would provide knowledge, procedures and assays for the former; a market advantage by improving the green credentials of the second through the provision of additional 'ecosystem services' (i.e. micropollutant degradation); the opportunity costs of avoiding expensive energy-intensive end-of-pipe treatment technologies for the third; and a technological and ethical solution that would allow the latter produce beneficial medicines without harming the environment. This research could lead to products that would contain specific enzymes tailored to the micropollutants of concern of any country. It could help stimulate further economic growth in sectors in which the UK is already an international leader.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the research would be the environment and the general public. These would benefit from the avoidance of hazardous chemical pollution (micropollutants) that is known to affect wildlife and with unknown but suspected health effects in humans. In contrast to alternative solutions, this research would provide a cost-effective solution for micropollutant removal and allow people to continue reaping the benefits of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals to improve their health and well-being. This would be done without significant changes to their life-styles or regulations that might impinge on, or add costs to, those benefits.


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Description Through a combination of computer learning and expert assessment we have identified a plausible degradation pathway for particular estrogens and the likely enzymes involved. We have good evidence that these enzymes perform the degradation steps that we have posited.

We are currently carrying out some further characterisation of some of these enzymes.

Several publications are currently being drafted on these findings (two on the computer learning algorithms and case study for their use; two on the isolation, expression and function of two enzymes that can degrade the first rate limiting step in the degradation of the two most important estrogens; and one review article)
Exploitation Route Academic publications must be completed and submitted. In parallel, discussions with our Business Development team will be undertaken to explore any potential Intellectual Property protection that may arise. We can then seek to further characterise and develop the enzymes and their analogues for use in a wastewater environment through further research funding but with potential industry partners who may be interested the concept.
Sectors Chemicals,Environment,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description Collaboration with Northumbrian Water Ltd 
Organisation Northumbrian Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We will carry out sampling and hydraulic tracer studies on Northumbrian Water Ltd (NWL) sites.
Collaborator Contribution They have provided H&S training and access to any of the sites we wish to visit and data on flows, tank sizes and design data.
Impact None as yet.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with Synthetic Biologists 
Organisation Newcastle University
Department School of Computing Science
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are sharing information on estrogen degradation and performing biodegradation, bioinformatics and chemicals analyses in collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution They provide genetic engineering, bioinformatics and microbiology skills
Impact None
Start Year 2014
Description Collaboration with Unilever 
Organisation Unilever
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Liaison with Unilever and IITDelhi to co-ordinate a workshop around environmental risk assessment in India.
Collaborator Contribution Unilever are sponsoring the workshop and have been responsible for jointly leading the organisation of the workshop
Impact Workshop to take place in April 2016
Start Year 2015