Production and Prototyping Equipment for Manufacturing Ceramic Media for Water Biofiltration

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Image: Research Associates Rosy Heywood and Sonny Lightfoot using the extruder

Written by Rosy Heywood, Research Associate, Centre for Print Research

The production and prototyping of ceramic media has been predominantly based at the Centre for Print Research labs. The centre has expansive facilities with an array of technical equipment. Specialist machinery used in this project includes a hydraulic piston extruder and 3D printer. Other workshop equipment was utilised including an industrial dough mixer, ball mill and laser cutter.

During the design phase of creating the ceramic media it was considered a requirement that the production methods are able to produce 160 pieces of each type of media efficiently and consistently in size and also, the production method should be scalable and easily repeatable for future experimentation.

In our research, the importance of the porosity of the ceramic media was being analysed. And three production methods were established for the creation of three sets of media of varying porosities. Low porosity media was produced through extruding standard terracotta clay, medium porosity was produced by extruding a clay and sawdust composite and high porosity media was produced using an organic foam impregnation method. The specialist technical equipment used for low and medium porosity media is detailed below.   

Extrusion

With its origins in the production of bricks, extruders are now used in many different industries. According to Frank Handle in Extrusion in Ceramics, notable applications are in the production of foodstuffs such as pasta, shaping of aluminium profiles, wrought copper alloys and steel and for the extrusion of hard metal, graphite, coal and plastics.

The extruder housed at The Centre for Print Research was built by the technical team for the specific use with clay and clay composites. The clay is pushed through a die by the manually operated hydraulic ram. The die determines the extruded profile shape and size which can be extruded to different lengths.

To create the desired extrusions, we designed dies and 3D printed them to fit the ram cylinder. The benefits of using a piston extruder for this research is; it is easy to clean so small chance of contamination, little material is wasted and bespoke extrusion profiles can be produced with ease and precision using desktop 3D printers.

3D Printing

3D printing technology was utilised in this research to create bespoke manufacturing tools. Additive manufacturing is the production of 3D objects printed from a CAD (Computer Aided Design) model.

Filament is fed through the printer and the model is printed layer by layer. In prototyping we used a recycled Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament for the tools. PLA is a bio-plastic made from fermented plant starch and is commonly used in 3D printing due to versatility and ease of printing.

The advantage of using this technology is that we could create bespoke tools for specific processes during manufacturing the media. For example, a die was printed to extrude cylinders 20mm in diameter and a cutting jig was printed to cut them into exactly 20mm individual lengths.

Figure 2 3D printer in action printing an extrusion die

Getting back into the conference circuit

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Image: Exterior of IWA World Water Congress and Exhibition’s Gala Dinner held at the Øksnehallen.

By Dr Gillian Clayton, Centre for Research in Biosciences, College of Health, Science and Society

It has been several years since we’ve been able to attend any international conferences in person, but Darren Reynolds and I recently attended the International Water Association World Water Congress and Exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark. This congress included 8,00o attendees, with over 300 exhibitors from all over the world to discuss all aspects of water. The overall theme of the congress was Water for Smart Liveable Cities, encouraging universities, independent research institutions, utilities, and industry to share information and work together. The congress theme aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation for All, and many of the talks and workshops discussed solutions to overcome key issues around water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH). There were six key themes throughout the congress including, utility management, drinking water and potable reuse, city-scale planning, communities and partnerships and water resource management. This congress was a great way to share knowledge and create collaborations around many aspects of water that we cover within the Healthy Waters research cluster.

The breadth of this conference was introduced nicely with the opening keynote given by Professor Jason Box of The Geologic Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Here Professor Box highlighted the need for actions to prevent or slow increases in global temperatures. This talk provided a great overview of climate change, stating that global temperature increases are disproportionately affecting the arctic region, specifically the Greenland ice sheet, which was highlighted in the first episode of the new Frozen Plant 2 series. Increased glacial melting in the artic regions are not only causing an increase in water levels, but the additional cold freshwater entering in oceans is affecting global weather patterns, through the shifting ocean currents. This has never been more obvious with extreme weather events are becoming more common, such as hurricane Fiona recently affecting Puerto Rico, severe flooding in Pakistan and the typhoon in Japan.

These changes in weather events are going to further exacerbate uneven distribution of freshwater around the planet, with the poorest nations suffering the most. Therefore, utilising alternative water sources for drinking and daily use, and developing technologies and solutions to effectively treat water with minimal resources and environmental impact is necessary. The research I presented investigates treating stored waters, such as rainwater or ground water, with an in-situ electrochemical cell that reduces bacterial load (such as E. coli), making it safe to drink. The work is ongoing with project partners Bala Vikasa/Frank Water based in Telangana, India and the University of Antananarivo and Sadabe in Madagascar.

One aspect the congress organisers were keen to highlight was the transformation of the Copenhagen Harbour over the past ten years. Throughout the summer people are swimming, kayaking and paddle boarding throughout the canals which cut through the centre of the city. Ten years ago, there were constant instances of wastewater entering the Copenhagen harbour, yet with investment in wastewater treatment facilities the harbour is an example of sustainable city living. The transformation of Copenhagen harbour provides hope Conham River Park and Eastwood Farm Nature Reserve where there is an ongoing petition to designate the areas with bathing water status.

Meet the team: Rosy Heywood

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Rosy Heywood is a Research Associate at The Centre for Print Research (CFPR) at UWE. In this interview, she discusses her work as a sustainable textiles designer & researcher, and her role in the Healthy Waters research cluster.

Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to work in your current area?

I studied a MA in Design at UWE, during the pandemic. I started in 2019 and graduated last year, and my tutor, Dr Laura Morgan, was working at CFPR – the Centre For Print Research – which is the department that I’m working in now. She hired me as a Research Associate on a natural dyeing and laser engraved biomaterials project because my MA project was very relevant, I had focused on textiles and sustainable materials and specifically natural dyeing. So, when this project came along with Healthy Waters, it overlapped with the natural dyeing work that I did; you can’t get away from the amount of water and the toxicity of water that synthetic dyes use, so sustainable water management was an area that I was already very interested in.

So, about a month after the project with natural dyes finished, Tavs [Dr Tavs Jorgensen, Associate Professor and AHRC/RCUK Innovation Fellow] got in contact with me about the Healthy Waters project. And I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds exciting’. Ceramics is a slightly new area for me – I did do some on my Master’s, because when you first start you have to do a lot of different workshops in different areas of design – but it’s been really great to be picking up a new skill and starting to become a bit more of an expert in it. Sonny [Sonny Lee Lightfoot, Research Assistant and Product Design Technician] and Tavs have been brilliant, I’ve been able to pick up lots of skills in ceramics. For me, I’ve come into this with my design training and my design thinking, and it’s been amazing to apply that in a new, fresh area.

It’s been really interesting to hear how the arts and science departments have been collaborating on this project. What’s the experience been like for you, leaning further towards the technical scientific elements of the project?

Sadie, a MSc student who has been using our ceramic beads to test for biological filtration, produced a chart of how well our ceramic media did during filtration and it was great to see the results from our combined work; it’s made me really interested in how I can ‘science-ify’ my research and improve that aspect of it. I’m looking into doing a PhD and I’d like to move towards a material science or textile science direction – that’s something which is happening in the CFPR anyway, we have the graphene lab and the researchers based there have great expertise in material sciences.

Sometimes when you’re creative, you get so embedded in the design or art of something, it’s easy to forget other aspects. So when you’re able to merge it with science, it opens up a new way of thinking around design – going forward, this project is definitely going to change the way I think about designing.

You mentioned earlier that you did your masters throughout COVID lockdowns – what was that experience like for you?

It was difficult because it’s a very practical course. A lot of it was things we’d have to be on campus for, to use the workshops. Initially I was doing a lot of digital embroidery, for example, and that had to be done on campus – I can’t just buy a digital embroidery machine at home! So that definitely changed my path into a different area for my Master’s; I came into it thinking I was going to be doing digital embroidery and art installations, which became increasingly more difficult. So, I chose to do something I could do from home: natural dyeing. My work organically grew into more of a research project. Dyeing was something I could do at home and I was really interested in learning more and experimenting with it. I think in a way COVID kind of made me realise a different path that I wasn’t expecting to go on and brought me to where I am now – even though it was a very difficult time to be stuck at home, it forced me to think a lot more about what exactly I enjoyed doing and what I am good at.

It sounds like the new route you’ve been taken down is pretty great – the Healthy Waters project seems to have a lot of potential to make a big difference in the world!

Definitely. At the beginning of my Master’s, I hadn’t thought much about the importance of the work I was creating. I was only thinking, ‘What do I want to create’ rather than considering the bigger picture. But in research, you have to think about an important question that you want to solve and the solutions often involve other people and everything going on around you; I found my focus in sustainability because it’s so important today. What we’re doing now on the Healthy Waters project is creating a very sustainable method of cleaning water and my work with the CFPR is creating ceramic vessels and media for biological filtration.

Your MA focused on sustainable design as well, do you think you’ve always had that drive to protect the environment or has that grown as you’ve encountered a more scientific angle to work?

It’s hard to avoid it – you see so many statistics, and real-life instances, like this heatwave we’re having, and you see the need for sustainable solutions and change all around you. I think before my MA I hadn’t really thought that I could merge that into my design practice but in the project that I did, about natural dyeing, I started trying to create a more circular method of production. I worked on techniques to use plants to dye biodegradable materials. In essence, they could be buried back into the soil to break down, and the dyes could be naturally disposed of since they’re plant-based and non-toxic to the environment – it’s essentially diluted plant waste returning its nutrients to the ground. That research flowed really nicely into what I’m doing now, creating clean water. It’s been fascinating to hear how they test the water, what they find in the water, and how to deal with it – especially biological filtration, which I didn’t know much about as a method of cleaning water before I joined this project.

One of the Healthy Waters project’s aims is to support low-middle income countries with the technology you’re developing – does that add an extra source of motivation for you?

Definitely. It’s those things that are the most motivating in your work; that’s something that I’ve discovered recently in my professional experience as a researcher, but also in my MA: having motivation is so important in your work and working in such a crucial and important area only motivates me more. It’s inspiring, really.

[You can read more about the goals of the Healthy Waters project on their blog post here!]

You’ve mentioned you’d like to go on to do a PhD. What do you hope the future has in store for you in that regard?

That’s something that I’ve been trying to work out for myself because often to get further in academia, you need to do a PhD. I’m working with a few people at CFPR to figure out what I want to do, what I’d want my research question to be – what I’d want to discover, because a PhD is really all about learning and finding something that needs a solution created. It’ll definitely be in the sustainable materials or sustainable textiles range related to that circular economy I mentioned earlier. But the experience I’ve had now on Healthy Waters has been really great, getting to hear from scientists and work alongside them, to have that new experience for my PhD where I can relate scientific backing to my work. I haven’t got a solid answer but my goal is really to stay at the CFPR, to work on more research projects – there’s always more stuff coming up! I’d love to work with more people at UWE, there are so many people with so many different skills and areas of expertise, and I’d love to branch out and work with people from different departments.

You can connect with Rosy on her website and via her LinkedIn profile.

Safe Water and Antimicrobial Solutions for Resource Constrained Healthcare Facilities

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Written by Dr Gillian Clayton, Centre for Research in Biosciences, Faculty of Health and Applied Science

Humanitarian settings, such as refugee camps, require consistent access to safe, high-quality water, but this can be difficult due to complex supply chains. If supply chains are interrupted or delayed, vital clinical solutions like sterile saline used to wash out wounds, and antimicrobials, such as hypochlorous acid, used to disinfect instruments and wash wounds are essential to ensure patient safety. Typically, clinical fluids (e.g. sterile saline and antimicrobials) are produced, packaged and transported in a ‘centralised’ manner. For example, solutions may be produced in the UK and then held at a storage facility/warehouse, before being transported via land, air and/or sea to the healthcare facility.

However, the Redistributed Manufacturing in Healthcare Network has investigated the potential to allow for clinical fluids to be produced on-site and on-demand, minimising the need for storage and transportation. A proof-of-concept project lead by UWE in collaboration with The Usher Institute (University of Edinburgh), Centrego Ltd, Portsmouth Aqua Ltd, The Royal College of Surgeons of England and Water for People and Peace investigated “The On-Demand Manufacture of Potable & Sterile Water for Emergency Medical, Humanitarian & Healthcare Applications Using Electrochemical Activation Production Technologies”. This project developed, adapted and repurposed Electrochemically Activated technologies for the on-demand production of clinical fluids for healthcare facilities in resources constrained environments. This project demonstrated that simple, low-cost and low-energy technologies can produce sterile solutions from tap or bottled waters, as well as produce a high-quality antimicrobial solution (hypochlorous acid) from a small-scale portable generator. These prototype technologies have shown that remote or resource constrained healthcare facilities can be adaptive and more resilient in a changing world through decentralised production, or redistributed manufacturing.

The low-cost and low-energy small-scale portable prototype generators, designed to produce sterile solutions from tap or bottled waters (top), as well as a high-quality antimicrobial solution (bottom)

New journal article published in Science of the Total Environment

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Written by Bethany Fox, Research Associate in Centre for Research in Biosciences (CRIB)

A new paper has been published in Science of the Total Environment (STOTEN), “A case study: The deployment of a novel in situ fluorimeter for monitoring biological contamination within the urban surface waters of Kolkata, India”.

This paper details the deployment of a novel in situ fluorescence sensor in the urban surface waters of Kolkata. The case study demonstrates the benefit of this technology with recent advances in understanding and technological capability. Using the new sensor, developed by our technology partner Chelsea Technologies Ltd., the team were able to identify a blackwater contamination event in the Hooghly River (Ganga) in Kolkata, India. The team also conclude that the use of this technology would provide information regarding biological water quality in situ and in real-time, important information which is often missing from our current monitoring practices due limited to time consuming and expensive sampling surveys.

This paper is an output from the NERC-DST India-UK Water Quality project which focused on the development and implementation of technologies for improved water quality. Within this project, UWE has been in partnership with Professor Tapan K Dutta and his team at the Bose Institute in Kolkata alongside multiple UK technology partners.

Sensor boat survey and water quality monitoring of the Hooghly River (Ganga) in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

Biological filtration using different porosities of ceramic media

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By Sadie Hadrill (MRes Student)

Freshwater is essential for life on Earth, and the role of freshwater is fundamental to society and for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Biological filtration is a sustainable biotechnology used to remediate biological and chemical contaminants within water. This is performed by establishing polymicrobial biofilms (diverse microbial communities) on a granular substrate, that can be housed within a column, here referred to as a biofilter. Biofilters develop efficient sorptive (attachment) capacity within diverse microbial communities of biofilms.

Filtration media has come in many forms prior to recent experimentation including sand, charcoal and granular activated carbon. Different filter media properties, including permeability, surface area and porosity, can determine the performance of the biofilter. As such, practical knowledge is needed regarding the impact of the type of filter media used. In this example we used ceramic media, more specifically terracotta clay, varying in porosity as described in the previous blog post. The team at UWE’s Centre for Print Research (CFPR) created ceramic media of low, medium and high porosities to determine the impact of porosity on the biofilter systems.

Biofilter maturation

The three variations of ceramic media were equally distributed into three individual filter columns (9 filters in total) and connected to 25 L tanks containing tap water. To aid the beginning stages of biofilm maturation, the water tanks were inoculated with pond water to introduce environmental organisms.

Figure 1. Laboratory scale biofilters containing three different types of clay media, varying in porosity: A) Low porosity, B) Medium porosity and C) High porosity.

Over four weeks of biofilm maturation, the biofilters were monitored weekly for nutrient concentrations (such as phosphates and nitrates) and bacteria. Samples were extracted from both the filter media and the circulation water for analysis.

Figure 2. Laboratory scale biofilter columns containing ceramic media (A), connected to a four-channel peristaltic pump (B) and circulation tanks (25 L) containing mains tap water (C).

An investigation of porosity of media and pathogen removal

Once the biofilters had undergone maturation, the experiment investigated the removal of Escherichia coli (E. coli)and Enterococci, both are bacterial indicators of faecal contamination. Over a 24-hour period pond water was circulated through the biofilters containing the different porosity ceramic media. Samples of the circulated pond water were collected every three hours and analysed for the presence of the E. coli and Enterococci.

Preliminary results indicated a decline in both E. coli and Enterococci recovered from samples taken over a 24-hour period. However, initial findings suggest that the ceramic media porosity has little impact on E. coli and Enterococci removal as there was little difference between the bacteria counts for the three different porosities of ceramic media.

Further experimental work is ongoing to explore pathogen removal in more detail and to determine if the size of the ceramic media (e.g. smaller ceramic beads) impacts the performance of the biofilter.

Healthy Waters Research Cluster sets sights on four research challenges

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When it comes to healthy water there is no shortage of challenges – indeed the difficulty is often in finding sufficient focus to not feel paralysed by the extent of problems. In April, UWE Bristol’s Healthy Water Research Cluster did just that. On a Friday afternoon, in a room kitted out for the training of primary educators – complete with thrones and creative mobiles – researchers from across disciplines as varied as engineering, biosciences, creative industries, science communication, economics and supply chain management came together to identify research priorities for the cluster.

Over the coming months, UWE Bristol’s Healthy Water research cluster will be developing the following project ideas:

Managing Water Resources through Smart Landscapes

Data is collected for water systems all over the world by different organisations and for different purposes. The challenge is that these data sets are not integrated and not always accessible – even within a single country let alone across borders. As technology moves on there are additional challenges around integrating data from old technology with that of the new. Imagine having integrated data sets at a landscape level, where industry, government, researchers and communities can interact with data to improve ecosystem resilience, exchange knowledge and engage communities in their local environment.

Management of water quality through community-based value chains in water technology

Innovation in water treatment technologies is important but not enough – we also need to create localised production systems that are sustainable and take into account the whole life cost of the process, including maintenance, final disposal, recycling or reuse.  This workstream focuses on articulating models for creating affordable community-based value chains, that build on the use of local, readily available materials and expertise, employing water technologies such as ceramic filters, rainwater harvesting systems and gravity supply schemes.

Development of rapid water quality assessment technologies

New advances in water quality monitoring strategies are urgently needed for both water catchments and drinking water supplies. Improved temporal and spatial water quality data will require new and multiple real-time monitoring technologies and approaches that enable rapid chemical and biological assessment at a single point-source or through an integrated catchment network. Such data is imperative if effective water quality management frameworks are to be implemented and realised.

Scalable and sustainable water treatment solutions and technologies

Safe water in the context wastewater or drinking water is essential in minimising potential contaminants and pollutants from entering water systems or reducing the possibility of disease in humans. Many current treatment solutions or technologies are centralised in nature, where a large-scale facility will treat vast volumes of water across a large area and then distribute throughout extensive networks where necessary. This is a costly approach to build and maintain and is unattainable for some communities, such as rural communities or communities in low-income countries. Developing scalable and sustainable solutions that are decentralised and can be easily maintained by communities, with minimal resource requirements are key to ensuring waters are reliably treated to a high standard.

The Healthy Waters research cluster is looking to engage with people interested in these projects – other researchers, industry, government agencies, NGOs, community organisations and other stakeholders. Please do get in touch research@uwe.ac.uk for more information.

Sustainable Solutions to Water Quality Challenges in Rural Uganda

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Written by Chad Staddon, Professor of Resource Economies and Policy.

A lack of access to safe, piped water services in many parts of the world means that alternative water supplies, such as rainwater harvesting (RWH), are often all that is available.  However some studies have shown that RWH may pose a health risk because of its potential to carry microbial pathogens through wet deposition (bonding of chemicals in the air before hitting the roof), transit via the catchment area (usually a rooftop), drainage gutters and pipes, and the residence time in the storage tank itself. Indeed, water quality testing undertaken by a UWE Bristol team in southwestern Uganda in 2019 suggested that up to 50% of water samples from RWH systems could be contaminated in excess of WHO limits.

To improve the microbiological quality of stored drinking water, ceramic pot filters (CPFs) may be a robust point-of-use technological solution. Through a combination of mechanisms including ultrafiltration, adsorption and biofilm metabolism CPFs have been demonstrated to be effective at removing >99% of protozoa and 90-99% of bacteria. CPFs are associated with a 60-70% reduction in diarrheal disease incidence reported by users in some studies.

In 2018 and 2019 UWE Bristol staff and students worked to better understand the extent of the water quality challenge associated with RWH and to options assess possible solutions including granular media, solar disinfection and ceramic pot filters.  Now, the UWE Bristol Healthy Waters team, including Chad Staddon, Tavs Jorgenson and Jiseon You, is working to determine if CPFs can be manufactured in accordance with appropriate technology principles stipulating that technologies should be locally reproducible and maintainable with essentially existing skills and resources.  The team aims to develop a trial for locally produced CPFs using existing ceramics making processes including open pit firing during 2022.  If successful the team hopes to support and encourage the scale up of production by local producer groups, enterprises or cooperatives, thus addressing capacity gaps identified in earlier research.

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