'Poo power' could spread North East expertise across the globe

Newcastle University academics are leading the way in creating a way to make sewage and water treatment works self sustaining

Prof. Tom Curtis (Environmental Engineering, Newcastle Universty) in the 'Pilot Scale Lab'
Prof. Tom Curtis (Environmental Engineering, Newcastle Universty) in the 'Pilot Scale Lab'

Scientists claim that the “power of poo” could put the North East on the map in a similar way to the railway.

Northumbrian Water and academics from Newcastle University are leading the way in creating a way to make sewage and water treatment works – which currently consume 2% of all the electricity used in Britain – self sustaining.

And now, after more than a year of secret tests in North Tyneside, it’s been revealed that a working prototype of the proposed technology exists – marking the first step on a journey that could save the world billions of pounds in energy bills, and help provide a source of fuel for a new generation of hydrogen cars.

“If it works then I’d like to think that it could turn the region into a real hotbed of research in this area,” said biological engineering expert Professor Tom Curtis.

“And not wanting to sound too hyperbolic but the railways came from here and went across the globe and there is no reason that this low energy waste water treatment technology couldn’t too.”

At the moment the huge water treatment works at Howdon, near Wallsend, handles the equivalent of 17 Olympic swimming pools worth of waste every hour, but has to heat waste sludge to around 165C using steam, in a pressure cooker type environment, as part of its process.

That is incredibly inefficient, with almost half a KWh of electricity being needed to treat just one cubic metre of water.

But what Professor Curtis and his colleagues, including professor of electrochemical engineering Keith Scott and Dr Elizabeth Heidrich propose, is that by placing a “cassette” containing a positively charged rod and a negatively charged rod on the opposite side of a permeable membrane – a process known as electrolysis – into waste water it is possible to create both electricity and hydrogen gas.

And to prove it, with the backing of Northumbrian Water, they successfully ran a 100-litre “poo reactor” at Howdon for 422 consecutive days – showing that such a process if scaled-up could make water treatment at the very least energy neutral, if not energy generating.

Northumbrian Water’s commercial director Maxine Mayhew said the latest developments were in stark contrast to how waste was dealt with even a decade ago, when much of it would be taken out to sea and dumped.

“We’ve 2.6m customers and their waste – over 1.6m tonnes of sludge – ends up at just over 400 water treatment works. That’s a lot to deal with and get rid of, and only 10 to 15 years ago a lot of it would be taken out to sea and dumped. But it is a resource – it’s good organic material.”

The efforts to place the North East at the forefront of excrement-based innovation is being supported by a £5m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – with Prof Curtis expressing the hope it could reduce the time between breakthroughs from around half a year to only a matter of days.

“We’re trying to get away from striving for perfection first time out,” he said. “If you build an aeroplane wing you don’t just design it, make it and then attach it and fly it to see whether it falls out of the sky – but that’s what happens with science.

“Instead you’d use computers to model and predict what will happen first, and we want to do the same. That could see your time between prototypes fall from one every six months to one a week.”

That could mean the technology can be developed swiftly, and retrofitted into the existing expensive infrastructure around the world. “Wasting energy in wastewater treatment is increasingly a global problem,” Prof Curtis said. To watch a video explaining more about how the new technology works visit www.journallive.co.uk

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