Plant-mediated resource recovery-towards closing the waste water loop

Lead Research Organisation: NERC CEH (Up to 30.11.2019)


This Catalyst proposal aims to assess the feasibility of using bioenergy crops (i.e. crops grown for energy production, rather than food) for the recovery and decontamination of polluted water. Bioenergy crops could be a valuable way forward for improving water quality, as they can undertake or assist in several ecosystem processes such as: 1) removal of toxic chemicals from contaminated water (and soil); 2) using up the nutrient present in waste waters; 3) stabilising wastes and improving the look of derelict land; 4) providing a place for wildlife; 5) generating a low carbon footprint, through the provision of fuel. Our proposal to direct research to assess the potential role for biomass crop in waste effluent management is driven by the fact that climate change and population shifts are increasing pressure on the world water resources. This means that in the future we will need to reconsider how we deal with domestic and industrial waste waters. In particular, we will need to think of these effluents as a resource, rather than just seeing them as a problem due to the excess nutrients, pharmaceuticals, 'trace' metals, nanoparticles, microorganisms they can contain.

During this initial phase, we will bring together a partnership that will examine the suitability of using bioenergy crops as a mechanism for: 1) harvesting nutrients; 2) breaking down pollutants; 3) lowering the abundance of antibiotics resistance genes; and 4) decrease the number of human pathogens in waste water effluents. The selection of bioenergy crops will be based not only on the need to maximise biomass production, but also their potential suitability for water quality improvement and also the additional ecosystem service they can provide.

We will work with experts from academia, industry, NGOs and government to comprehensively review issues relevant to the development of the technology. We will organise two workshops to discuss the proposal aims in detail. The first of these will include a range of organisations from different fields with a stakeholder or beneficiary interest in the area. The workshop participants will be asked to consider two potentially contrasting strategies for tackling the resource recovery challenge: 1) a pragmatic approach that will focus on how innovation can complement existing technology; and 2) a visionary approach that would aim to more radically change the way we deal with waste effluents. Comprehensive reviews of the extensive literature on phytoremediation will be conducted that will help to identify the most feasible may forward (e.g. choice of species, growing conditions, effectiveness of pollutant and pathogen removal). These results will be published in a review article on the evidence base for using bioenergy crops for the recovery and remediation of waste water originating from farms, households and industry (e.g., shale gas fracking fluid). A second workshop will be attended by a subset of the initial workshop attendees with the remit to produce a solutions-oriented Research Grant application to NERC.

Planned Impact

The impacts of our work will be built from the experiences of the project team in commercializing remediation methods and working with stakeholders for the development of robust environmental assessment and management approaches (e.g. for pharmaceutical waste and contaminated land management and biofuel production). In this catalyst phase, we will seek to build the collaborative links that will shape a larger grant application centred on coupling biomass production into waste stream management. These activities will assist us in identifying a range of partners from key commercial and regulatory sectors with relevant concerns and interests in our proposed waste utilisation approaches.

Water resource management: Legislation related to the levels of macronutrients and micro-pollutants in waste waters are bringing significant challenges to this sector. Tractable technologies that couple water treatment with the provision of other ecosystem services would be of interest to these organisations. Key player in the water resource sector, including supply and management companies, will be a focus for engagement.

The waste management sector: Management of effluents needs to be built on a comprehensive knowledge of the range of potential options for treatment. Providing information to stakeholders in chemical manufacture and supply, oil and gas exploration and engineering for aerospace and automotive manufacture in a systematic form will allow these organisations to gain a better view of treatment options.

Environmental managers and regulators: Providing an evidence base for decision making on the feasibility of solutions-oriented application for coupling potential waste treatment to biomass production could provide innovation that can support both regulatory compliance and increased economic and natural capital values. Such innovation will be relevant to the missions of the major regulatory agencies.

The energy sector: Any development that is able to bring new resources into production (or to maximise yields from land in use) will be of considerable interest to the development bioenergy sector, including the major energy companies currently commercialising this technology.

Four measurable actions will deliver our impact in this catalyst phase.

1. Host an open workshop on the applications of biofuel technologies for waste stream management.
2. Draft and publicise a synthesis article summarising the opportunities and challenges association with biofuel crop use in waste water management.
3. Identify the major partners needed to develop a coordinated approach to biofuel integration into waste stream processing.
4. Draft and submit a competitive research proposal to the main Resource Recovery from Waste program call.


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