Project highlights

  • Interdisciplinary supervisory team of world-leading environmental nanoscientists, ecotoxicologists and hydrologists 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


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. This includes how they age (alter their structure, break down and interact with the environment) and potentially leach and/or adsorb other harmful substances.

Recently, car tyre brake “wear and tear” materials have been identified as a major source of microplastic pollution to freshwater environments and soils as well as to the air, in particular in congested inner-city environments. Detection of tyre and brake pad materials in environmental samples is intrinsically challenging due to their colour and difficulties to detect by standard FTIR and Raman spectroscopy. Therefore, we are facing a significant knowledge gap as to how these particles behave in our environment, bearing the risk of significant undetected environmental impacts now, and in the future.

This PhD project will investigate the fate and transport of car tyre and brake wear related microplastics in freshwater and soil environments, analysing 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 car tyre and break ware products, which is of critical interest to regulators as well as the transport, infrastructure and manufacturing industry sectors.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding


University of Birmingham


  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability


Project investigator

  • Prof. Iseult Lynch (University of Birmingham)



  • Prof. Stefan Krause (University of Birmingham)
  • Prof. Greg Sambrook Smith (University of Birmingham)
  • Dr Holly Nel (University of Birmingham)
  • Dr. Simon Hoy (Environment Agency)
  • Dr John Ravening (ARUP Ltd)

How to apply


This PhD project will use the unique experimental facilities of the Birmingham Environmental Change Laboratory (EcoLab – to investigate the environmental fate and transport of car tyre and break wear particles under controlled conditions in artificial streams (represented by recirculating flumes) and soil column experiments. Surveys of microplastic particles from road runoff infrastructure and road-side soil and water sampling will inform experimental design with respect to particle types and exposure concentrations. Artificial streams will be set up with different sediments, inoculated with different microbial communities and subjected to varied flow velocity and UV exposure to study environmental controls on time-dependent particle behaviour. Following similar first-order principles, soil columns of different soil types, porosity and flow-through velocities will be established to quantify soil impacts on particle degradation. Degradation products and leachates will be monitored analytically. The experimental data will parameterise existing fate and transport models developed in the group to up-scale the findings.

Training and skills

The project will provide interdisciplinary training in 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 ARUP Ltd. who have a declared interest in understanding the environmental fate, transport and impact of road runoff of car tyre brake wear and tear products. ARUP Ltd. supports this project as a CASE partner and provides highly valuable access to their road-side effluent capture infrastructure (for soil and water sampling) 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 Iseult Lynch, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK (

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, 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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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;


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.  Arup’s engineers can collect the road-samples if needed during their routine activities.