Team:Imperial/Informing Design


Imperial iGEM 2014

Informing Design


We spoke with individuals and organisations who have interests in water treatment and bacterial cellulose in order to direct the development of our project. This included discussions with academics, industry and NGOs. These talks allowed to us to draw on previous experience in cellulose biosynthesis and processing as well as see how our solution could appropriately fit in with current processes.

Key Achievements

  • Spoke with water treatment experts to find out about the problem and what specific contaminants can be tackled
  • Discussed with industry how our project could be developed to fit in with existing infrastructure
Dr. Michael Templeton

22/07/14 - Dr. Michael Templeton (Civil Engineering, Imperial College)

Dr Michael R. Templeton is a chartered civil engineer and Senior Lecturer in Public Health Engineering at Imperial College. He is Chair of the Water Supply and Quality Panel, at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) and an active member of the ICE Water Expert Panel.

Some problems that he thought were compelling enough to warrant novel synthetic biology solutions were large-scale desalination, improved hygiene and sanitation in lesser developed regions, and more sensitive water filtration. He was personally enthusiastic about the potential of Synthetic Biology, but of course brought up the uneasiness that we could encounter with the proposed use of micro-organisms in a drinking water treatment. This was an influential opinion in finally deciding to have a biologically-inert filter, one that is produced by the engineered bacteria but is eventually eliminated from the final usable product..

We discussed the possibility of improving upon current systems, which prompted him to mention the Kanchan arsenic filter - a low-tech solution that has proven to be a long-lasting and cost-efficient one in developing countries, particularly due the accidental formation of a contaminant-eliminating top layer of helpful bacteria called a 'schmutzdecke', and iron nails incorporated to bind arsenic. Here was an example of how biology can improve existing systems, as well as a reminder of the robustness of current slow sand filters.

Among the information he shared with us on the current water systems in place in the UK, he mentioned metaldehyde - a main component in slug-targeting pesticide - as one of many contaminants that currently cannot be removed. Pesticide regulations in the EU make this an issue for water suppliers. Currently, water treatment simply minimises the unwanted contaminants in water by diluting contaminants to qualify below the threshold, rather than removing it entirely. From this, we started thinking of other region-specific contaminants and realised there was room for a modular adaptable filtering system.

22/07/14 - Dr. Andreas Mautner (PaCE, Imperial College)

Dr. Andreas Mautner is a Postdoctoral member at the Polymer and Composite Engineering group at Imperial College London, led by Prof Alexander Bismark. Dr. Mautner’s work focuses on the development of filtering membranes for sustainable water treatment. Specifically, he targets fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metal ions and microbial contamination for further industrial applications.

We met with Dr. Mautner to discuss his findings on cellulose-based filters, their characteristics, limitations, and scope for improvement by biological engineering. Amongst other issues, we discussed the biological characteristics of cellulose that could be improved. We also talked about the limitations of the current chemical functionalisation of cellulose, mainly based on the chemical attachment of functional groups. The latter very much reinforced our aims to functionalise our pellicles by both the non-covalent and covalent attachment of biologically-derived proteins of interest, due to their higher affinity for their cognate targets.

Furthermore, he described in detail a variety of post-processing steps and post-production treatment of cellulose pellicles, which became a fundamental pillar of our cellulose post-processing side project.

24/07/14 - Prof. Nigel Graham (Civil Engineering, Imperial College)

Professor Nigel J.D. Graham is an elected Fellow of the International Water Association, and a co-recipient of the Institution of Civil Engineers Telford Gold Medal in 2010. He is the Head of the Environmental and Water Resource Engineering Section and Professor of Environmental Engineering. His research covers the field of Unit Processes for Water and Wastewater Treatment, and Water Supply Engineering.

The intention behind our meeting was to compare and expand our knowledge on water treatment processes in different countries, in order to identify an avenue in which our idea could align with. He also brought up an important point that efficiency and lifespan are likely to be at opposing ends. We have seen this as a problem for Thames Water where their membranes require flushing every several minutes, as they are filtering to very high purity standards. This concept caused us to consider the idea of a specific but reusable filter, that functions with a controllable elution.

28/07/14 - Dr. Sandy Cairncross (LSHTM)

Dr. Sandy Cairncross is a Professor of Environmental Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine (LSHTM) with a vast career spanning water, sanitation and public health implementation in developing countries. Two of our team members met with Dr. Cairncross to discuss using our bacterial cellulose biomaterial as a point-of-use filter in areas where people do not have access to clean drinking water. In the meeting he emphasised that water quantity, rather than quality, is often the crucial factor that reduces incidence of hygiene illnesses such as diarrhoea, and warned that ‘temporary’ solutions such as point-of-use filters can end up becoming inadequate permanent solutions, which reduce governmental focus on improving infrastructure. We also discussed other contexts where our filter could be used such as disaster zones and army transport vans. An enlightening meeting, we re-examined our end application to think about more industrial settings.

30/07/14 - WaterAid

WaterAid is an international NGO that works worldwide to deliver clean water and sanitation through sustainable, long-term solutions. We visited their London based global office to speak with Ray Heslop, an Engineering Advisor and founder member of the Northumbrian WaterAid Committee. From him we learnt about the importance of sustainable, appropriate solutions, as well as some of the current water distribution and treatment methods. We were informed that it is far easier and preferable to protect a clean water source than attempt to treat a contaminated one. This lead to us to reconsider our initial idea of targeting our bacterial cellulose filter to underdeveloped countries and instead focus on ones with some water infrastructure.

The team and Dr. Michael Chipps (Thames Water)

21/08/14 - Thames Water

We also considered the use of our filter in current industrial processes in developed countries. We got in contact with Thames Water, who is the private utility company responsible for water supply and waste water treatment in large parts of London. At their treatment facility we learnt from Dr. Michael Chipps (Principal Research Scientist) and his colleagues in innovation about how water is treated at an industrial scale using a variety of techniques. These included techniques we had come across previously such as slow-sand filters and activated carbon as well as some new methods that they were investigating. Of particular interest were membrane bioreactors and the issues surrounding current cellulose acetate membranes.

02/09/14 - Médecins Sans Frontières

We considered that our filter may find applications in areas of disaster where more immediate aid and provision of potable water may be required. Our meeting with Dr. Biserka Pop Stefanija, a Water Sanitation Advisor from (MSF) gave us insights into how our filter would be better suited to use by organisations such as MSF in bulk treatment for temporary storage and distribution than as a point of use filter.

From our meeting we learnt how it is important to rapidly set up water treatment and provision facilities when responding to crises. Not only is this vital for drinking and prevention of disease, it also allows medics to provide their services effectively. Water is viewed as part of public health rather than a commodity. An interesting part of our discussion was how it was important to engage with the community when providing technological solutions. If the water treatment procedure is too much of a hassle, it simply won’t be used and so will have no effect. Cultural/traditional ideas and political propaganda may also halt the uptake of new technologies. This is something we would have to consider in the future.