Fate of engineered nanomaterials in waste water treatment plants, NERC GW4, PhD in Mining and Minerals Engineering studentship Ref: 3343

About the award

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see http://nercgw4plus.ac.uk/

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An index-linked stipend for 3.5 years (currently £14,777 p.a. for 2018/19);
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £4,000 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Up to 30 fully-funded studentships will be available across the partnership.

Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

Project details

The nanotechnology industry is now valued at over one trillion US dollars and the global annual production of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) now exceeds several hundred thousand tonnes [1], [2]. It is clear that ENMs pose immense benefits for society, however, it is now well-established that many different types of ENM also pose serious adverse effects on the environment and human health [3]. In addition many larger materials are also known to undergo environmental degradation into nanomaterial form (e.g. the degradation of bulk scale plastic into nanoplastic [4]).
Given the fact that waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) are likely one of the foremost recipients of ENMs an accurate understanding of their occurrence, behaviour and fate in such systems is urgently required. More specifically we currently have no idea where the ENMs are currently being discharged and therefore their likely environmental impact. 
This project will provide this urgently required data by undertaking a major sample collection campaign at WWTPs around the UK. Mass balance will then be applied to determine the extent at which different ENMs can either penetrate through the entire water treatment process (i.e. end up being discharged within the “treated water” and therefore into either riverine or coastal marine environments) or become concentrated within biosolids (and then subsequently spread onto agricultural land). 
This information is critically required in order to then understand the likely mechanisms for associated environmental and human health impact and thereby shape both future UK legislation and industry best practice for ENM removal.

Project Aims and Methods

The overarching aim of this project is to provide critically required baseline data on the occurrence, behaviour and fate of ENMs in UK WWTPs. 
The project will aim to: 
i. Quantify the current flux of different ENMs at each stage of the WWTP process;  
ii. Identify the mechanisms which govern ENM behaviour and fate with each stage of the WWTP process; and
iii. Assimilate data from aims (i) and (ii) in order to provide preliminary data for the creation of a “nanopollution risk” map for the UK.
A major component of this project will be the collection of samples (water and biosolids) from WWTPs at various locations across the UK in addition to soil samples located adjacent to WWTP effluent discharge zones (in order to determine potential ENM “hot spots”). Various advanced laboratory based analytical techniques will then be applied in order to detect and characterise any ENMs present in such media. 
The project is joint supported by SEPA and DEFRA. By partnering academia with industry, the work will provide critically required site-derived data in order to improve our academic knowledge of ENM behaviour in a wide range of environments but also provide real practical data which can then be potentially used for the dual purpose of informing UK legislation on ENM regulation whilst also informing the development of new WWTP technology for ENM removal. 


The student will be supported and trained by staff with relevant experience in:
Fieldwork (environmental sampling), namely: auger sampling, water sampling, sample preservation techniques, geospatial sampling techniques, fieldwork safety.
Analytical techniques, namely: aqueous phase analysis (spICP-MS, IC, FTIR) and solid phase analysis (HR-SEM, HR-TEM, AFM, DLS, XRD, XPS and zeta potential)

The University of Exeter and the University of Bristol also offer a range of different training courses each year which will be available to the student, including: Soil and Water Contamination, Contaminant Transport, Hydrogeology, Land Surveying and Research Frontiers in Earth Sciences. Courses for professional development (e.g. “writing your thesis” and “an introduction to being an effective researcher”) are also available. 
For a full list, see: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/doctoralcollege/researcherdevelopment/training/

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

The student will be given the unique opportunity to work in close collaboration with Peter Singleton (Research, Innovation and Evidence Manager, SEPA), Sam Curran (International Partnership Manager, SEPA) and Steven Morris (DEFRA) in to gain the skills necessary to optimise research planning, management and knowledge dissemination for maximum impact on UK policy and industrial best practice. This will equip the student will excellent prospects for onward employment in both academia or industry.


Fig.1 HR-TEM images of EMNs which are currently used in commercial products. Clockwise from top left: GO; nFe3O4; nZVI; and DE-nZVI.


Fig.2 Simplified schematic diagram of a typical municipal WWTP process. Each treatment stage will potentially impart significant changes to ENM physico-chemistry and is also a potential major pathway for their release into the natural environment.

References / Background reading list

[1]  Keller AA, Lazareva A. Predicted releases of engineered nanomaterials: from global to regional to local. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. 2013 Oct 15;1(1):65-70.
[2] Lourtioz JM, Lahmani M, Dupas-Haeberlin C, Hesto P. Nanosciences and Nanotechnology. Evolution or Revolution. 2016.
[3]  Soni D, Naoghare PK, Saravanadevi S, Pandey RA. Release, transport and toxicity of engineered nanoparticles. InReviews of environmental contamination and toxicology 2015 (pp. 1-47). Springer, Cham.
[4]  da Costa JP, Santos PS, Duarte AC, Rocha-Santos T. (Nano) plastics in the environment–sources, fates and effects. Science of The Total Environment. 2016 Oct 1;566:15-26.


Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

Candidate Requirements
Strong undergraduate degree and/or postgraduate qualifications in Geology/Earth Sciences (or equivalent), fieldwork (ideally environmental sampling) experience, and a keen interest in nanotechnology, emerging contaminants, geochemistry, contaminant transport, and sustainability. The candidate should also have excellent communication skills to allow effective interaction with relevant stakeholders from government, industry and academia.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project http://www.exeter.ac.uk/postgraduate/apply/english/.


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.
  • Two References (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school).

Reference information
You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your two referees email their references to pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk, as we will not make requests for references directly; you must arrange for them to be submitted by 7 January 2019

References should be submitted to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2019.  Interviews will be held between 4 and 15 February 2019.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:£14,777 per annum for 2018-19
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk