Intermediate dark fermentation as a platform technology for chemical recycling and biorefineries in the water sector PhD

Cranfield University

Cranfield, UK 🇬🇧

This exciting fully funded PhD, with an enhanced stipend of £21,000 per annum, will investigate resource recovery opportunities from sewage sludge with dark fermentation as core enabling technology. Current state of the art for sludge treatment is focussed on biogas and digestate generation via anaerobic digestion, as sources of renewable energy and organic fertilizers, respectively. This project works collaboratively with UK water utilities to identify and develop alternative value propositions, investigating the role of dark fermentation in transitioning sludge treatment centres into true biorefineries, where available carbon can be recovered and used for wastewater treatment or converted into high value chemicals for external use. . 

Students will benefit from being part of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Water Infrastructure and Resilience (WIRe), a world leading collaboration between three UK universities. The WIRe programme includes a bespoke training programme in technical and personal skills development, and provides opportunities for overseas travel and access to world leading experimental facilities (PhDs under this scheme are for a duration of four years full time). 

We are an inclusive and diverse doctoral centre and welcome applications from all highly motivated individuals, regardless of background, identity or disability .

Reducing dependency on external chemical supplies for wastewater treatment is a strategic priority for the water sector, in order to sustain a resilient treatment that is not exposed to availability and costs of chemical supplies. Separately, decarbonising the chemical supply for treatment plays a key role on the long-term ambition of water utilities to deliver a low carbon service to customers. The strategic role of biorefineries in generating bio-based materials that can substitute fossil-based fuels and chemicals is recognized internationally, with their importance highlighted in the European Union Bioeconomy Strategy (2022).

The potential of transitioning sludge treatments centres into true biorefineries by implementing dark fermentation has been stated for the water sector, both for treatment of sewage sludge alone or in co-treatment with other organics wastes. In the short term, intermediate dark fermentation can offer a route to recover volatile fatty acids (VFAs) for internal use within wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), suppressing the need for external carbon sources for biological nitrogen and phosphorus removal (BNPR) and providing a carbon neutral chemical source. In the longer term, VFAs, as the most versatile platform chemical extractable form sewage sludge, can be physically extracted or chemically/biologically converted to a range of high value products and fuels, with bioplastics, animal feed, biogas, hydrogen as examples. Although underexplored for sludge feedstocks, the potential of dark fermentation to generate green hydrogen is also a concomitant benefit. 

This project aims to develop dark fermentation as an enabling technology for circular economy in the water sector, with individual objectives as:

1. To provide an internal carbon source for BNPR that reduces reliance on external chemical purchase 
2. To define the operational framework for sewage sludge dark fermentation that will result in optimized VFAs yields while controlling VFA profile
3. To inform the technical feasibility and environmental benefits of a dark fermentation and AD combined flowsheet for the UK context
4. To quantify the market potential of implementing dark fermentation to sell VFAs as platform chemicals 

Cranfield University is a unique learning environment with world-class programmes, unrivalled facilities and close links with business, industry and governments, all combining to attract the best students and teaching staff from around the world. Research students at Cranfield benefit from being part of a dynamic, focused and professional study environment and all become valued members of the Cranfield Doctoral Network. This network brings together both research students and staff, providing a platform for our researchers to share ideas and collaborate in a multi-disciplinary environment.
This project is sponsored through the WIRe CDT, which focusses on nurturing a new generation of research leaders to provide the multi-disciplinary, disruptive thinking to enhance the resilience of new and existing water infrastructure.

This project will advance thinking into transitioning sludge treatment centres into true biorefineries. It will define the operational framework for sewage sludge dark fermentation that will result in optimized VFAs yields while controlling VFA profile, informing the technical feasibility and environmental benefits of a dark fermentation and anaerobic digestion combined flowsheet for the UK context. The project findings will support the water industry deliver on its aspirations to reduce dependency on external chemical supplies and reduce the carbon footprint of its operations. 

The successful candidate will have the opportunity to work alongside the industry sponsors and gain significant experience in industrial research while developing the fundamental science to enable sludge biorefineries. The WIRe CDT also provides an enhanced financial package with an annual tax-free stipend of £21,000, full fees and budget available to support attendance to national and international conference, training needs, field work etc. The CDT includes a complete bespoke training programme within a cohort of up to 15 students.  

At the end of the project the successful applicant will be very well positioned to have a highly successful career in the water sector or in an academic role. We will help you develop into a dynamic, confident and highly competent researcher with wider transferable skills (communication, project management and leadership) with an international network of colleagues.

This is an applied PhD, with the student having regular interaction with the stakeholders from UK water utilities and being exposed to state-of-the-art industrial practices in sludge treatment; all providing a unique learning experience and opportunities for further employability. The experimental work will be conducted at Cranfield’s UKCRIC funded Bioresource Technology Lab, alongside a dynamic team focussed on supporting water and waste utilities increase resilience and meet their sustainability targets.

At a glance

  • Application deadline: 24 May 2023
  • Award type(s): PhD
  • Start date: 25 Sep 2023
  • Duration of award: 4 years
  • Eligibility: UK, Rest of World
  • Reference number: SWEE0216

Supervisor

1st Supervisor: Dr Yadira Bajon Fernandez

2nd Supervisor: Dr Luca Alibardi

Entry requirements

Applicants should have a first or second class UK honours degree or equivalent in a related discipline. This project would suit an applicant with a strong interest on resource recovery and development of sustainable treatment solutions, who is keen on industry-academic collaboration. Applicants with a background on biology, chemistry, chemical or environmental engineering, water science, environmental science or related discipline will be particularly well suited for this project.

Funding

Sponsored by EPSRC through the Water Infrastructure and Resilience (WIRe) Centre for Doctoral Training and multiple UK water utilities, this programme will provide an enhanced bursary of £21,000 (tax-free) plus student fees for four years. The sponsorship also includes project consumables and a package to support training needs and attendance to national and international conferences of the successful applicant. 

The studentship is open to UK and international students (including EU countries) however due to funding rules, no more than 30% of the projects in this cohort can be allocated to international students.

Cranfield Doctoral Network

Research students at Cranfield benefit from being part of a dynamic, focused and professional study environment and all become valued members of the Cranfield Doctoral Network. This network brings together both research students and staff, providing a platform for our researchers to share ideas and collaborate in a multi-disciplinary environment. It aims to encourage an effective and vibrant research culture, founded upon the diversity of activities and knowledge. A tailored programme of seminars and events, alongside our Doctoral Researchers Core Development programme (transferable skills training), provide those studying a research degree with a wealth of social and networking opportunities.

How to apply

For further information please contact:

Name: Dr Yadira Bajon Fernandez

Email: y.bajonfernandez@cranfield.ac.uk

If you are eligible to apply for this studentship, please complete the online application form stating the reference No. SWEE0216.


POSITION TYPE

ORGANIZATION TYPE

EXPERIENCE-LEVEL

DEGREE REQUIRED

IHE Delft MSc in Water and Sustainable Development