Ben Exton

Cranfield University


Investigating the transport, fate and ecological impacts of airport de-icers


  • Dr Robert Grabowski

PhD Summary

Every year at airports, aircraft are sprayed with de-icers and pathways are also treated to ensure that no-one slips on the way to their well-earned holiday. However, as with many materials we use they have some potentially quite negative impacts upon the environment – it may not be the more well-documented carbon problem but it is all a part of the big-picture.

I am working with Heathrow Airport in particular. Running alongside the East of the airport is the River Crane, a tributary to the River Thames, which receives surface runoff from the airfield which, despite treatment efforts, suffers from ecological damage as a result of de-icing compounds, including the growth of undesirable river biofilms (URBs, formerly known as sewage fungus).

What inspires you

I have always been an avid outdoors enthusiast, I started in Scouts when I was six and have been there ever since – now as a leader for my own group. This gave me the opportunities to experience, enjoy and appreciate the natural world. I am regularly found in the mountains, woodlands or on a lake appreciating the natural world all around us.

This combined with an exceedingly enthusiastic GCSE Chemistry teacher that sparked my interest in the subject, something which stuck with me, all the way to where I am today.

Previous activity

Having had such an enjoyment from Chemistry and a true appreciation for the subject, I went to Bangor University where I completed my Masters of Chemistry and had truly amazing experiences.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

Combined with these experiences at Bangor University, it was through Scouts that I got to know an Environmental Chemist outside of the academic bubble. He was a consultant, that had also spent time in academia, and everything he had to say really inspired me.

I had always wanted to make a difference and I had enjoyed research so much that it seemed the obvious next step.

Why did you choose CENTA?

As I was scrolling through what seemed to be the endless list of PhD’s in my field of interest, one stood out to me: this one. As I read the description I remember thinking to myself “They spray planes with de-icers?” It had never occurred to me that they would, but then when I got to think about it, of course they do. You put de-icer on your car – and planes need to fly, so of course they do.

It was a project where I could see the real world impacts, by completing this I would actually make a difference to a local environment with potential applications elsewhere. It may not be saving the world, but baby steps!

Future plans

I have an immense passion for “the outdoors”, the natural world and protecting our environment is key to this and to our future existence. I want to be able to do my part and whether this lies in academia and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge or lies outside of it, putting this knowledge into practice through new and innovative solutions, I want to make a difference, an impact. This project and the training & experiences that come along with it, I believe is an important steppingstone to achieving this.