Research mission and context
Mission: We develop microbial technology that is clean and safe, for a sustainable water cycle and food production chain
General context. Nutrients play a pivotal role in sustaining global food security, relying on the biological upgrading of simple inorganic fertilizer molecules such as ammonium to precious nutritional compounds such as essential amino acids. The inefficiencies and losses along the food production chain (fertilizer – feed – food – fork) however yield unacceptable environmental changes. This profiling of mainly nitrogen and phosphorus as double-edged swords is additionally entangled to (fossil) energy and (fresh) water demand. Many wasted nutrients end up in aqueous streams, such as wastewater. Conventional treatment approaches based on nitrification/denitrification are typically resource inefficient, as they are electricity intensive, disable enhance recovery of organics or energy, and can produce undesirable emissions (e.g. the greenhouse gas N2O). By 2050, the tension on the water – energy – food nexus will strongly increase, with figures of 30, 40 and 50% for water, energy, and food respectively. The societal challenges at hand translate into an urgent call for more sustainable removal, recovery and production technologies.
Our mission and goal. We aim to ambitiously and concretely contribute in rendering solutions for global societal challenges for sustainable development, with solutions reinforcing our environment, our economy and our society. More specifically, we want to alleviate tensions in the nutrient-energy-water nexus through cleaner technology, for treatment of waste streams (curative, removal and recycling) but also for the virgin production of resources (preventive, reducing waste/emissions). Figure 1 illustrates the ‘3R strategy’ of our research team for environmental engineering and cleantech. We believe in the metabolic power of microbes, and more particular in the application of consortia or strains of bacteria, archaea, microalgae and/or fungi as key process catalysts. It is our goal to develop novel microbial cleantech for the water cycle and food production chain: bioreactor solutions that are resource efficient, emission poor and cost effective, producing safe effluents and/or products.
Figure 1: Our ‘3R strategy’ for developing microbial cleantech solutions for a sustainable water cycle and food production chain
Specific solutions and methodology. The core expertise lies in the development of smart design and operation for bioreactors and process configurations. The team’s bioconversion interests encompass biological nutrient recovery (micro-algae, photoheterotrophs, single cell protein,…), short-cut nitrogen removal (partial nitritation/anammox and nitritation/denitritation), biological phosphorus removal, conventional biological nitrogen removal, reuse of recovered products,... Figure 2 for instance sketches the microbial cleantech pathways for nutrient recovery investigated by our team. The influent scope ranges from domestic over industrial to agricultural or aquacultural streams, be it in end-of-pipe collection systems or in source separation schemes (e.g. black, brown, grey, yellow water). Besides the terrestrial context, a dedicated focus is oriented toward biological life support systems for Space. The group’s methodology spans from lab- to full-scale reactors and from microbial analyses to process control and microbiome management and steering. In the philosophy of sustainability, maximum efficiency of resources (e.g. energy and chemicals) and minimum emissions of harmful compounds (e.g. N2O) are guiding compasses in process choice and optimization. In the context of resource recovery and industrial biotechnology (virgin production), dedicated attention is oriented toward the market demand side, meeting requirements in terms of quantity and quality of end-users, striving for an economically viable solution.
Figure 2: Microbial cleantech pathways for nutrient recovery
- Research highlights:
- Expertise: Microbial cleantech for the water cycle and food production chain
- Co-authored 94 articles in ISI indexed journals (international, peer reviewed, A1); h-index (Hirsch): 26; 2370 times cited (excluding self-citations)
- (Co-)Promotor of 12 finished and 15 ongoing PhD students
- Contributions to conference presentations: >150 oral and >75 poster
- Coordinator of the FP7 project ManureEcoMine, (Co-)PI for several projects from the European Space Agency (ESA), scientific coordinator of the MIP i-Cleantech Flanders project MicroNOD
- Teaching highlights:
- >10 years of teaching experience in environmental biotechnology, wastewater treatment and cleantech
- Signature courses: Environmental technology; Wastewater treatment technology; Cleantech for food, water and energy; Microbial re-use technology; Biotechnological processes in environmental sanitation; Microbial ecology & environmental sanitation
- Promotor of >40 MSc thesis students, and many BSc thesis students and external internships
- Servicing highlights:
- Associate editor for Microbial Biotechnology (John Wiley & Sons), Web of Science IF 4.9 (2018), top 25% journal in the areas 'Biotechnology & Applied Microbiology' and 'Microbiology'
- Consultant for the environmental engineering industry: for 14 companies (among which 7 international), 5 public bodies/agencies and a court case
- Member of the management committee of the International Water Association Specialist Group Nutrient Removal and Recovery (IWA SG NRR)