Project highlights

  • Integrating biological and thermochemical methods to reduce pollution and promote sustainable chemical feedstocks;  
  • An industrial placement with a world-leading environmental technology company; 
  • Training in state-of-the-art techniques across the fields of microbiology, chemistry, and environmental technology 


Over one billion people cannot access safe drinking water. Even a robust treatment network – like used in the UK – cannot adequately protect water resources, as a recent 2022 UK parliament report revealed that not a single river in England met good chemical status. Wastewater sources are littered with hazardous organic contaminants such as hydrocarbons, detergents, and personal care products. At the same time, small organic molecules – such as ethane, ethanol, acetone, and formaldehyde – are critical building blocks needed in chemical industries worldwide. Currently 85% of these compounds are derived from petroleum. Potential treatments for these organic contaminants may be tuned to also produce chemical feedstocks. Wastewater sources may therefore be used as a more sustainable sources of small organic molecules. However, it is often technically challenging or cost prohibitive to both treat hazardous contaminants and generate valuable small organic molecules. 

Breakthrough multidisciplinary innovations are needed to achieve improved environmental sustainability and carbon neutrality within a safe, circular economy.   

This project proposes to leverage emerging chemistry, microbiology, and environmental technology research at The Open University to economically treat wastewater and generate small organic molecules. Applied smouldering combustion has been shown as a novel method to economically treat high moisture content wastewater sludge into high fractions of carbon monoxide.  At the same time, breakthrough microbiology research has shown that, while high carbon monoxide concentrations are typically bactericidal, various types of extremophiles may be able to thrive in this environment, break down organic contaminants, and generate useful small organic molecules. Therefore, these research discoveries can be leveraged in a novel, sustainable wastewater treatment strategy that addresses the critical environmental challenge of pollution (Figure 1). However, there are many key knowledge gaps in combining the environmental technology innovations towards producing small organic molecules. This project will focus on developing our understanding of the key chemical and microbial processes that govern these transformations. The project will involve: (i) tracking the chemical inputs and outputs in all processes, (ii) identifying microbes that best reduce the contaminant concentrations and promote small organic molecule production, and (iii) exploring how smouldering emissions may support or hinder these microbes. 

A process flow diagram showing the combination of environmental technologies proposed in this research project. The diagram details how the emissions from waste smouldering can support microbial-based organic contaminant treatment and small organic molecule generation.

Figure 1: A process flow diagram detailing the key experimental approaches of this research project. 

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


The Open University


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

Daniel Payne, Open University, [email protected] 


OU Co-I: Michael Macey, [email protected]  

OU Co-I: Tarek Rashwan, [email protected]  

CASE supervisor:  Gavin Grant, [email protected] 

Jacobs supervisor: Siddharth Gupta, [email protected]  

CEH supervisor: Susheel Bhanu Busi, [email protected] 

How to apply


A combination of chemistry, microbiological, and smouldering techniques will be applied to investigate the pathways to treat wastewater and generate small organic molecules. Standard smouldering experiments will be performed to capture emissions needed for the microbiological investigations. The microbiology experiments will identify and isolate keystones species in the community (e.g., smouldering-gas utilisers, contaminant degraders, and small organic molecule producers). Detailed analytical chemical techniques such as GC-MS, HPLC-MS, in-situ IR, and flow photospectroscopies – will be used to track the fate of organic contaminants and the identification and quantification of generated small organic molecules. The student will have access to a range of additional techniques at the partner organisations that can be used to identify microbial interactions.  

Training and skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.  

The student will be trained in specific laboratory-based techniques in organic chemistry characterisation, molecular biology (e.g., DNA extraction, PCR, library preparation, and DNA sequencing), applied smouldering, analytical geochemistry, and culture-based microbiology by members of the research team. A placement with Savron will enable participation in research and deployment of novel environmental technologies worldwide. The student will also be trained in computer-based techniques, including bioinformatic analysis of sequencing data and smouldering data analysis. The student will benefit from additional skills development opportunities offered by The Open University, e.g., communication skills, time management, and academic writing. 

Partners and collaboration

Gavin Grant (Savron) is an environmental technology expert, specialising in hazardous materials treatment. Savron employs smouldering technologies to eliminate environmental liabilities.  The research project and placement will expose the student to cutting edge remediation environmental technology development.  

Susheel Bhanu Busi (CEH) has expertise in microbial ecology, cell fluorimetry and metagenomic analysis. 

Siddhartha Gupta (Jacobs) is an expert in wastewater treatment and will provide insight into the industries appropriate for these innovations. Dr Gupta will also provide interpretation of the results, and guidance on appropriate pathways towards application. 

Further details

Further details on how to contact the supervisor for this project and how to apply for this project can be found here: 

For any enquiries related to this project please contact Daniel Payne, [email protected]. 

For additional details please the following profile pages: 

Daniel Payne:  

Michael Macey:  

Tarek Rashwan:  

OU Astrobiology:  

To apply to this project: 

 Applications must be submitted by 23:59 GMT on Wednesday 10th January 2024. 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Perform a literature review of key processes. Complete training in chemical methods, molecular techniques, bioinformatics, applied smouldering, and statistical analysis of large-scale datasets. Undertake preliminary field work collecting wastewater and sludge samples and performing initial chemical surveys of organic contamination. Set up enrichments for bioremediation with smouldering waste gases.

Year 2

Undertake placement with the CASE partner. Conduct smouldering experiments to generate emissions needed and perform metagenomic analysis of the enriched samples to identify keystone species and chemical endproducts. Present in-progress results at a national conference (e.g., Microbiology Society annual conference).

Year 3

Refine all experimental activities towards preparing and submitting a manuscript. Present data at an international conference (e.g., Gordon Applied and Environmental Microbiology). Write and submit thesis.

This project will benefit from access to various key research infrastructure from The Open University, including: (i) existing metagenomic datasets from wastewater treatment experiments, (ii) a robust array of relevant analytical chemistry equipment, (iii) purpose-built smouldering equipment, and (iv) a decade’s worth of experimental smouldering data and in-house numerical modelling capabilities. This access to key experimental and digital research infrastructure bolsters project resiliency, as research work can be initiated rapidly. Moreover, in the instance of any potential restrictions to fieldwork or laboratory access, the supervisory team has multiple contingency strategies to progress the student’s progress via the extensive virtual tools available 

Further reading

García, J. L., & Galán, B. 2022. Integrating greenhouse gas capture and C1 biotechnology: a key challenge for circular economy. Microbial Biotechnology, 15, 1, 228–239.   

Macey, M. C., Fox-Powell, M., Ramkissoon, N. K., Stephens, B. P., Barton, T., Schwenzer, S. P., Pearson, V. K., Cousins, C. R., & Olsson-Francis, K. (2020). The identification of sulfide oxidation as a potential metabolism driving primary production on late Noachian Mars. Scientific Reports, 10(1).  

Macey, M. C., Pratscher, J., Crombie, A. T., & Murrell, J. C. (2020). Impact of plants on the diversity and activity of methylotrophs in soil. Microbiome, 8(1). 

Rashwan, T. L., Fournie, T., Torero, J. L., Grant, G. P. & Gerhard, J. I. 2021. Scaling up self-sustained smouldering of sewage sludge for waste-to-energy. Waste Management, 135, 298-308. 

Robb, F. T., & Techtmann, S. M. 2018. Life on the fringe: Microbial adaptation to growth on carbon monoxide. F1000Research, 7 

Sorokin, D. Y., Merkel, A. Y., Messina, E., Tugui, C., Pabst, M., Golyshin, P. N., & Yakimov, M. M. 2022. Anaerobic carboxydotrophy in sulfur-respiring haloarchaea from hypersaline lakes. ISME Journal, 16, 6, 1534–1546. 

Torero, J. L., Gerhard, J. I., Martins, M. F., Zanoni, M. a. B., Rashwan, T. L. & Brown, J. K. 2020. Processes defining smouldering combustion: Integrated review and synthesis. Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, 81, 100869.