Biological pathogen removal within slow sand filters for drinking water treatment PhD

Cranfield University
Cranfield, United Kingdom
Position Type: 
Organization Type: 
University/Academia/Research/Think tank
Experience Level: 
Not Specified
Degree Required: 
Bachelor's (Or Equivalent)


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This exciting PhD opportunity is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Thames Water Utilities Ltd. We are offering a fully funded UK/EU PhD studentship, covering tuition fees, competitive stipend, research and consumables, and travel for international conferences. The candidate will be working with a highly interdisciplinary team to develop understanding on the biological removal of pathogens within slow sand filter biofilms. The novelty of this work is identifying the characteristics required for consistent and reliable removal of pathogens through biodegradation. This work will also provide fundamental insights into the ecology of such systems and establish a framework to engineer and monitor these conditions in the biofilm reactors.  Read more

Current production of potable water is heavily dependent on chemical use within the UK currently using 325,000 tonnes of coagulant producing ~180,000 tonnes of sludge at a combined cost of ~£50 m. However less chemical intensive or chemical free options are available. Slow sand filters (SSF) are an ancient yet effective technology which currently treats ~70% of London’s tap water. SSF are used to remediate water through reductions in turbidity, microorganisms and natural organic material in the UK, USA, Japan and Sweden. In the Netherlands, SSF are installed primary to improve the biological stability of treated water (through assimilable carbon reduction) in water distributions systems. SSF therefore help to reduce both the coagulant use and chlorine demand as part of a strategy to reduce chemical use. We posit that SSF represent an alternative path to the UK’s Prosperity Outcomes in the Water Industry. However, one big risk to this low chemical and carbon water treatment future is microbiological compliance. This project will develop fundamental science about pathogen removal mechanisms within water treatment biofilms and seek to enhance or improve this process.  


This project is a unique opportunity to study applied microbiology of drinking water biofilms and aims to:

  1. Further develop a multi-parameter viability assessment of pathogen biodegradation with drinking water biofilms. 
  2. Determine the impact of different meiofauna on the pathogen biodegradation rates using pure culture ingestion experiments and assessed using image cytometry and RNA sequencing.
  3.  Examine impact of i) multiple repeat ingestions, ii) presence of different meiofauna and iii) pre-exposure to catchment and treatment stressors (e.g. solar / UV radiation, reactive oxygen species) on the persistence of pathogens e.g. Cryptosporidium.
  4. Establish the link between media character, organic association, reactor operation and biofilm development on biodegradation rates of pathogens in pilot scale slow sand filters.
  5. Examine the impact of process conditions relevant to the persistence of pathogens within the SSF biofilm (e.g. sunlight, algae, dissolved oxygen, redox chemistry and organic matter content). 

Cranfield University is number one in the UK for training and producing engineering and technology postgraduates. It is one of the top five research-intensive universities in the UK and has an unrivalled reputation for transforming cutting edge technology, management and science into practical, life-enhancing solutions. This research project will be conducted within the Water Science Institute, School of Water, Energy and Environment. The drinking water (Dr Francis Hassard) and advanced sensors groups (Dr Zhugen Yang) aim to explore fundamental science and advanced sensors technology to address the water-environment-health nexus. The projects underway involve aspects of diverse disciplines, ranging from engineering, chemistry, environmental science, microbiology and sensor design. 


Thames Water Utilities Ltd, is a private utility company responsible for the public water supply and wastewater treatment in the river Thames catchments, including large parts of Greater London and the surrounding counties Thames Water is the UK's largest water and wastewater services company and supplies 2.6 billion litres of drinking water per day and treats 4.4 billion litres of wastewater per day. Thames Water's 15 million customers comprise 27% of the UK population. The student will have the opportunity to undertake an industrial placement as part of this project, gaining real world perspective and skills important for many employers. 


The results from this project will be published in top academic journals and will be disseminated through a combination of social media, mass media (newspapers and television) and international conferences. It is anticipated that results from this study will inform future strategies for full scale water treatment reactor design and operation at Thames Water. 


The student will be widely engaging with a multidisciplinary team to learn advanced biofilm analysis and interact with stakeholders to disseminate the research output. The funding supports travel throughout the project to meet with the collaborators, along with opportunities to attend and present results at international conferences (e.g. Biofilm Reactors Conference; ISME; World Water Congress). Cranfield University lead the UK water and wastewater networks. A generous training budget is provided to upskill talented PhD candidates.


Academic Skills: The student will learn next generation pathogen analysis (including image cytometry) and RNA sequencing alongside biofilm reactor design. Training will also be provided on culturing techniques (microbiology), chemical engineering calculations, statistical analysis (mathematical sciences) and specific instrumentation, as appropriate, depending on the candidate’s background, skills and interest. 


Transferable Skills: This component of the PhD is within the Vitae Researcher Development Framework and the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence. This project will maximise the benefits to the students as they progress through the course. We will aim to equip students with the skills needed for completing their PhD and their own career aspirations. This is delivered through transferable skills courses. 


Collaborator-led skills: the student will be actively collaborating with three Universities and a Water Company. The student will have the opportunity to work on a full-scale water treatment works.

At a glance

  • Application deadline 30 Nov 2020
  • Award type(s) PhD
  • Start date 01 Feb 2021
  • Duration of award 3 years
  • Eligibility UK
  • Reference number SWEE0119


1st Supervisor: Dr Francis Hassard
2nd Supervisor: Dr Zhugen Yang and Prof Jim Harris

Entry requirements

Applicants should have a first or second class UK honours degree or equivalent in a related discipline. This project would suit students with a background in: ecology, chemical engineering, analytical chemistry, water science, environment engineering, molecular biology, microbiology or civil engineering.


Sponsored by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Thames Water Ltd, this studentship will provide a bursary of up to £18,000 (tax free)* plus tuition fees for three years, and funds for the student to attend several national and international conferences.

*To be eligible for this funding, applicants must be a UK or EU national. We require that applicants are under no restrictions regarding how long they can stay in the UK i.e. have no visa restrictions or applicant has “settled status” and has been “ordinarily resident” in the UK for 3 years prior to start of studies and has not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education. (This does not apply to UK or EU nationals). Due to funding restrictions all EU nationals are eligible to receive a fees-only award if they do not have “settled status” in the UK.

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 Francis Hassard

If you are eligible to apply for the PhD, please complete the online PhD application form stating the reference No. SWEE0119