Project highlights

  • Interdisciplinary supervisory team of world-leading environmental hydrologists, nanoscientists and ecotoxicologists from academia and industry
  • Unique experimental facility of Birmingham Environmental Outdoor Laboratory for controlled environmental fate and transport experiments
  • A project at the interface of international research and industry practice with wide international collaboration opportunities through the 100 Plastic Rivers programme

Overview

Environmental microplastic pollution has become omnipresent with mismanaged plastic waste now contaminating freshwater and marine ecosystems, groundwater, soils, and even the atmosphere. Assessing the risks of environmental exposure to microplastics requires detailed understanding of their sources as well as of their environmental fate and transport. The detection of microplastics in the environment is hampered by time consuming sampling and extraction methods with no methodology for real-time in-situ detection of plastic pollution in soil or freshwater being available yet.

This PhD project will test the applicability of different biogeophysical sensing technologies for the direct detection of plastic pollution in porous media and free flowing surface waters. The development of accurate in-situ sensing capabilities will enable direct analysis of the fate and transport of microplastics in freshwater and soil environments, including how particles interact with the soil and water environments and their constituents (biomolecules / natural organic matter, other particulate matter, microorganisms) while they are transported, how they degrade and what their residence times are under variable soil and flow conditions. The results of this PhD research will contribute to our understanding of the environmental exposure and risks formed by microplastics, which is of critical interest to regulators as well as the transport, infrastructure and manufacturing industry sectors.

Host

University of Birmingham

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability

Supervisors

Project investigator

  •  Prof. Stefan Krause (University of Birmingham)

Co-investigators

  • Prof. Greg Sambrook Smith (University of Birmingham)
  • Prof. Iseult Lynch (University of Birmingham)
  • Dr Uwe Schneidewind (University of Birmingham)
  • Research partner and Co-I: Environment Agency
  • CASE partner: Dr Mehrez Elwaseif (Jacobs Ltd)

How to apply

Methodology

This PhD project will use the unique experimental facilities of the Birmingham Environmental Change Laboratory (EcoLab – https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/ecolaboratory/index.aspx) to test different biogeophysical technologies for their capabilities to trace the environmental fate and transport of microplastic particles under controlled conditions in artificial streams (represented by recirculating flumes) and soil column experiments. Artificial streams and soil column experiments will be set up to represent different sediment conditions to demonstrate the capacity to detect microplastics in different environmental conditions.

Training and skills

The project will provide interdisciplinary training in biogeophysic technologies and environmental microplastic sampling and extraction methods based on our labs wide experience (Tibbets et al., 2018; Nel et al., 2020), including advanced density separation (Nel et al., 2019) and fluorescent staining techniques (Nel et al., 2020) developed in-house. The student will receive detailed training in experimental design under controlled EcoLab conditions for environmental ageing studies of microplastics (Brandon et al., 2018) and advanced data handling and particle transport modelling (Drummond et al., 2020). Analytical training for particle degradation characterisation includes Electron microscopy, Raman Spectroscopy, microFTIR, Gas chromatography / Capillary Electrophoresis Mass Spectroscopy (GC/CE-MS).

Partners and collaboration

The project has been co-created with Jacobs Ltd. who have a declared interest in the development of biogeophysics technologies for the detection and analysis of the environmental fate, transport and impact of microplastic particles in the environment. Jacobs Ltd. supports this project as a CASE partner and provides highly valuable expertise in biogeophysical sensing technologies as well as supervision and guidance through their interdisciplinary teams, adding highly valuable industry perspective to the PhD training and research. The project is supported by collaboration through the International 100 Plastic River programme which provides ample international collaboration and training opportunities.

 

Further details

Professor Stefan Krause, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK (s.krause@bham.ac.uk)

Professor Greg Sambrook Smith, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK (g.s.smith4@bham.ac.uk)

Professor Iseult Lynch, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK (i.lynch@bham.ac.uk)

100 Plastic Rivers project website:

https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/water-sciences/projects/plastic-rivers.aspx


Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal, https://sits.bham.ac.uk/lpages/LES068.htm, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.

 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Project development and DR training (e.g. biogeophysical and analytical methods, experimental design, data handling and statistics), initial testing of biogeophysical methods for quantifying microplastics in freshwater and soil environments. Set-up and preliminary soil column and flume (recirculating stream) studies.

Year 2

Main experimental work and paper writing. Fieldwork at EcoLab and UK, international field sites, including through the Birmingham 100 Plastic Rivers Programme. Conference attendance (international and national).

Year 3

Ongoing fieldwork, data analysis, and paper- and thesis-writing. Conference attendance (international and national).

Further reading

Brandon J., Goldstein M., Ohman M.D. Long-term aging and degradation of microplastic particles: Comparing in situ oceanic and experimental weathering patterns. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2016, 110, 299-308. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.06.048

Drummond J.D., Nel H.A., Packman A.I., Krause S. Significance of Hyporheic Exchange for Predicting Microplastic Fate in Rivers. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2020, 7, 10, 727–732. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00595

Karbalaei, S., Hanachi, P., Walker, T.R. et al. Occurrence, sources, human health impacts and mitigation of microplastic pollution. Environ Sci Pollut Res. 2018, 25, 36046–36063. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-018-3508-7

Nel H., Krause S., Sambrook Smith G.H., Lynch I. Simple yet effective modifications to the operation of the Sediment Isolation Microplastic unit to avoid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) contamination. MethodsX, 2019, 6, 2656-2661.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mex.2019.11.007

Nel H.A., Chetwynd A.J., Kelleher L., Lynch I., Mansfield I., Margenat H., Onoja S., Oppenheimer P.G., Sambrook Smith G.H., Krause S. Detection limits are central to improve reporting standards when using Nile red for microplastic quantification. Chemosphere, 2021, 263, 127953. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.127953

Tibbetts J., Krause S., Lynch I., Sambrook Smith G.H. Abundance, Distribution, and Drivers of Microplastic Contamination in Urban River Environments. Water 2018, 10(11), 1597; https://doi.org/10.3390/w10111597

COVID-19

The majority of experimental field and laboratory work will be conducted at the University of Birmingham’s EcoLab (which is outdoor and thus less subject to restrictions) and the Environmental nanosciences laboratory, minimising any need for travel if this should be restricted and reducing interactions with others to controlled laboratory and experimental facility environments where full H&S procedures are in place. Short-term disruptions to fieldwork because of local or national lockdowns can be accommodated by flexibility in the project timeline.