Current Projects




MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez
Partners: Veolia Water Technologies

Achieving efficient nitrogen removal in high temperature and salinity wastewater treatment: A microbial process modelling approach

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

Nitrogen removal in conventional domestic wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) is an important treatment step catalysed by several types of microorganisms. The process for nitrogen removal involves typically a phase of oxidation of NH4 into NO2 and a phase of oxidation of NO2 into NO3, followed by an anoxic denitrification phase that produces N2 gas. The aeration required in these biological reactors in municipal and industrial WWTP to achieve the removal of not only nutrients but also organic constituents is highly energy-consuming and can account for between 30-60% of the total cost of operation of these facilities. In high temperature and specific conditions of salinity as it is the case in the UAE, cases of simultaneous nitrification – denitrification (SDN) have been reported in the past years. This phenomenon appears to be based in the co-existence of two antagonistic reactions, the nitrification phase which needs oxygen and the denitrification phase which needs lack of oxygen. Several factors affect the occurrence of SDN, amongst them the floc size and the level of oxygen, which allow for a gradient of oxygen in the floc and the formation of oxic and anoxic areas within. Systems performing SDN could potentially reduce energy, oxygen and carbon consumption but typically require complex instrumentation and the dynamics of the process are not well understood. The growth of filamentous microorganisms, which makes it difficult to implement in conventional activated sludge plants I also often promoted.
In this work we aim at developing a comprehensive rigorous mathematical model to study the interactions between the microbial metabolisms involved in the nitrogen cycle and the impact of high temperature and salinity on their performance. The model will include a detailed chemical speciation, function of pH, together with full thermodynamic data and bioenergetic calculations for the nitrogen related metabolisms as well as those potentially interacting with them. This approach is very different to that of the well know activated sludge models (ASM-type) as the later were developed with the focus on full activated sludge process and do not account for bioenergetics impacts as well as for other microbial activities such as sulphate or iron reduction oxidation that we believe of great importance that will be incorporated together with the more recently discovered anaerobic ammonium oxidation bacteria (anammox). The modelling work proposed will be combined with privileged access to detailed operation data at two large scale WTT plants in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Our industry partner will also conduct analysis and provide time and expertise in what can be a largely mutually beneficial comprehensive study. Together, we aim at both developing high impact novel knowledge on the biological nitrogen removal process at high temperatures to advance the state of the art while at the same time potentially enhancing the WWTP operation in terms of energy footprint, operational costs and effluent quality. This initial project will help establish a relationship with important educational benefits for Masdar Institute students due to the direct contact with local industry but also for industry staff trainning.



MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez

Protein production from microalgae in open mixed culture for feed additives and aquaculture

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

Photobioreactors can be used to produce protein rich algae for use as animal feed in aquaculture or as additive for livestock. The main objective of the project is to develop and optimise an open mixed culture of microalgae in a photobioreactor such that the operational conditions select for the maximum production of protein. This aims at its use for food industry applications (e.g. aquaculture). The work will involve the planning and design of selective pressure strategies such that high protein producing algae are favoured in the reactor against others, irrespectively of the strains present in the system. This has the potential of very large reductions in both capital and operational costs per unit of protein produced in such processes. As opposed to approaches based on pure culture of specific algae strain here we propose a totally different approach based on well designed reactor operation to impose selection of those algae of interest in our system.
By seeding also with wild algae inocula from the UAE environment and imposing selective pressures in favour of protein production it is expected also to enrich possibly unknown strains of interest and help in their identification and enrichment in further process development. The project aims at becoming a proof of concept during which the student will design experiments and operate the system gaining both theoretical and lab skills throughout.
This project will contribute to the general knowledge of the field in order to achieve optimum algae culture production through proper reactor design and process optimisation. Research will emphasise on the most critical scale-up and operational parameters, which are closely interrelated and determine the productivity and efficiency of the system. Knowledge on growth and production kinetics will be used to optimise cultivation parameters. Mass cultivations will in turn be greatly improved and effective utilisation of strong light will be better understood. Attention will be given to reactor efficiency and cost-effectiveness of systems, in genuine effort to contribute to one of the most important themes for the future of microalgal biotechnology.



MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez
Partner: Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC)

Modelling water salinity and nutrient cycling in an integrated seawater food and agriculture system

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

The system under study will be the integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (SEAS) pilot facility currently under construction in Masdar City. The SEAS consists of an interlinked system of aquaculture and halophyte (salt tolerant) cultivation, utilizing seawater and arid land in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The main advantage of this scheme aside the use of sea water is the nutrients recycling scheme. In order to evaluate the feasibility and sustainability as well as to evaluate different operation scenarios of the system, material balance based models will be developed for each of the SEAS sub-processes as well as for the overall water and nutrients flow recycling system. The water cycle as well as salinity and nutrients will be the core components of a model describing their changes through the process units under different operational scenarios. In order to ensure flexibility to incorporate new information and operational experience as it becomes available once the pilot facility is started, the models will be developed in Excel, initially for steady state scenarios with the possibility of dynamics to be added at a later stage. This architecture will allow for the incorporation of changes in the process and for the incorporation of experimental data obtained from the SEAS facility operation.



MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez

Modelling and engineering microbial ecosystems for water and resource recovery

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

Processes such as the biological treatment of wastewater, biogas recovery from waste as well as numerous novel bio based processes for resource recovery using residual biomass have in common the fact that they are conducted using populations of microorganisms maintained within reactors. The treatment of wastewater requires for the microbial ecosystems inside the reactor to remain stable such that optimum efficiency can be achieved while full compliance with water quality or product specification are maintained. A combination of both theoretical modelling and carefully designed laboratory experiments will be used to achieve the objectives, generate and test hypotheses.
The bioenergetic gain and efficiency is believed to be a main driver in defining the overall activity of microbial ecosystems including those involved in wastewater treatment. A thorough analysis and mathematical modelling will be conducted to mechanistically understand the ecological interactions in relevant microbial ecosystems. This new knowledge aims at an improvement of the control and efficiency of the treatment/recovery processes. Mathematical models based on bioenergetics will be developed with a minimum number of parameters and empirical elements as possible. The models to be developed will be applied to, namely: (i) achieve an enhanced prediction and control of anaerobic digestion treatment plants; (ii) the exploration of novel feasible microbial activities for nutrient recovery at high temperature and salinity; (iii) predict the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) during water treatment and understand the reasons behind those emissions and (iv) describe the key variables to ensure stability of the microbial activity during treatment. These applied objectives rely also strongly on some fundamental objectives and the PhD project proposed aims at contributing at both levels.



MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez

Modelling bioelectrochemical treatment of aquifer water

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

Groundwater recharge and bank filtration are important for purification and storage of water in Europe and the Gulf-Cooperation-Countries (GCC). The water quality is often challenged by elevated concentrations of nitrate and micropollutants. Here we will investigate and model a ground-breaking new technology for removal of nitrate and micropollutants at different steps of the recharge process prior and after but also during the groundwater passage. Overcoming the use of chemical treatment, we change purification technology to bioelectrochemical stimulation of microorganisms degrading the target compounds in anodic or cathodic reactions or combinations of both. We thus open new opportunities for large scale and decentralized plants which can also be operated on photovoltaics. We bring water treatment technology to a next level where the natural attenuation properties of microorganisms in aquifers are employed and enhanced by electricity. Anodic (organics oxidation) and cathodic processes (denitrification) can be implemented and regulated in aquifers by simple current control enabling moreover the removal of trace contaminants. Mathematical modelling allows for an accurate description of these complex processes and to develop concepts for process management by elucidating limitations and bottlenecks for bioelectrochemical reactions. The impact of the proposed work is to provide a decentralized new technology for production of clean water from wastewater recharge in aquifers.



MI investigator: Jorge Rodríguez

Optimised anaerobic treatment of multiple biowastes using economic and environmental criteria

(Small Scale Research Project)

Project summary

Anaerobic co-digestion (AcoD) aims at the simultaneous treatment of different biowaste substrates (solids and wastewaters) taking advantage of substrate blending synergies for enhanced energy recovery (biogas), effluent fertiliser properties (digestate) and consequently overall treatment efficiency. The main objective of our project is to develop an optimum strategy framework for AcoD operation to maximise the economic output and minimise the environmental impact. Economic through maximisation of profit (via biogas and fertiliser sales in addition to waste treatment service revenue) and environmental impact through the development of environmental indicators and their integration into the process operation and treatment pricing, all to achieve a sustainable AcoD treatment at a optimal profit for the society and environment (water-energy-food nexus). For this purpose, a selection and detailed characterisation of liquid and solid biowastes relevant to Abu Dhabi industry and public sector will be conducted, followed by an assessment of their biogas potential (quantity and quality) and digestate (for fertiliser applications). Detailed stationary and dynamic mathematical modelling of the AcoD process accounting for substrate synergies and incompatibilities will allow for the optimisation of economic profit both from products and waste treatment service. The marginal impact of a specific substrate on the overall process performance (on gas and digestate) will enable optimum pricing for the treatment service of each substrate. Besides the economic aspects, specific environmental performance indicators will be developed and incorporated into the process optimisation. Current and future biowaste scenarios for Abu Dhabi will be specifically studied under this approach to inform policy and to identify business model opportunities.

Completed Projects




MI investigators: Jorge Rodríguez (PI), Farrukh Ahmad, Lina Yousef.
Partner: TDIC Desert Islands
Funding: US$100k by MIRSG 2011
Duration: 1 year End Date: April 2013

Reed-bed systems, a sustainable alternative for sewage treatment and water recovery in Abu Dhabi

Project summary

The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (ISEAS) under study comprises an interlinked system of aquaculture and halophyte (salt tolerant) cultivation, utilizing seawater and arid land in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In order to evaluate the feasibility and sustainability of the system, materials and energy centred models are needed for the ISEAS sub processes as well as for the overall water and soil system also to evaluate economics and environmental impacts. Of-the-shelf commercial process simulation software packages alone fail to provide the needed models for the unconventional processes included in the ISEAS (e.g. mangrove WWT, aquaculture, halo agriculture) and also lack the needed flexibility to add new knowledge and experience to the models beyond just parameters (e.g. new processes, new equations). Based on the materials and energy at a first level, and both economic and environmental indicators at a second level, the models will allow for flexible changes in the process and for the incorporation of new knowledge from e.g. pilot experience as they will be implemented in an open source Excel based platform. These models will be integrated in an Excel-SuperPro proposed architecture (building up on the strengths of packages such as SuperPro on cost analysis and impact assessment) to allow for the techno economic evaluation of the overall ISEA system as function of design, operational and environmental variables. A software tool will be developed to (i) integrate the models and (ii) apply Monte Carlo based analysis of the possible scenarios in order to inform the SBRC on the future ISEAS design and operation.



MI investigators: Jorge Rodríguez
MIT investigators: Eric Alm and Greg Stephanopoulos
Partner: Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT)
Funding: US$300k by MI-MIT Program
Duration: 2 years End Date: August 2014

Engineering open anaerobic microbial fermentations for conversion of organic waste into biofuel

Project summary

Nitrogen removal in conventional domestic wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) is an important treatment step catalysed by several types of microorganisms. The process for nitrogen removal involves typically a phase of oxidation of NH4 into NO2 and a phase of oxidation of NO2 into NO3, followed by an anoxic denitrification phase that produces N2 gas. The aeration required in these biological reactors in municipal and industrial WWTP to achieve the removal of not only nutrients but also organic constituents is highly energy-consuming and can account for between 30-60% of the total cost of operation of these facilities. In high temperature and specific conditions of salinity as it is the case in the UAE, cases of simultaneous nitrification – denitrification (SDN) have been reported in the past years. This phenomenon appears to be based in the co-existence of two antagonistic reactions, the nitrification phase which needs oxygen and the denitrification phase which needs lack of oxygen. Several factors affect the occurrence of SDN, amongst them the floc size and the level of oxygen, which allow for a gradient of oxygen in the floc and the formation of oxic and anoxic areas within. Systems performing SDN could potentially reduce energy, oxygen and carbon consumption but typically require complex instrumentation and the dynamics of the process are not well understood. The growth of filamentous microorganisms, which makes it difficult to implement in conventional activated sludge plants I also often promoted.
In this work we aim at developing a comprehensive rigorous mathematical model to study the interactions between the microbial metabolisms involved in the nitrogen cycle and the impact of high temperature and salinity on their performance. The model will include a detailed chemical speciation, function of pH, together with full thermodynamic data and bioenergetic calculations for the nitrogen related metabolisms as well as those potentially interacting with them. This approach is very different to that of the well know activated sludge models (ASM-type) as the later were developed with the focus on full activated sludge process and do not account for bioenergetics impacts as well as for other microbial activities such as sulphate or iron reduction oxidation that we believe of great importance that will be incorporated together with the more recently discovered anaerobic ammonium oxidation bacteria (anammox). The modelling work proposed will be combined with privileged access to detailed operation data at two large scale WTT plants in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Our industry partner will also conduct analysis and provide time and expertise in what can be a largely mutually beneficial comprehensive study. Together, we aim at both developing high impact novel knowledge on the biological nitrogen removal process at high temperatures to advance the state of the art while at the same time potentially enhancing the WWTP operation in terms of energy footprint, operational costs and effluent quality. This initial project will help establish a relationship with important educational benefits for Masdar Institute students due to the direct contact with local industry but also for industry staff trainning.



MI investigators: Jorge Rodríguez (PI), Héctor Hernández and Farrukh Ahmad
Partner: Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC)
Funding: US$345k by SBRC Consortium
Duration: 2.5 years End Date: November 2014

Anaerobic digestion as key technology for energy and nutrient recovery in integrated seawater agriculture systems

Project summary

The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (ISEAS) under study comprises an interlinked system of aquaculture and halophyte (salt tolerant) cultivation, utilizing seawater and arid land in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. In order to evaluate the feasibility and sustainability of the system, materials and energy centred models are needed for the ISEAS sub processes as well as for the overall water and soil system also to evaluate economics and environmental impacts. Of-the-shelf commercial process simulation software packages alone fail to provide the needed models for the unconventional processes included in the ISEAS (e.g. mangrove WWT, aquaculture, halo agriculture) and also lack the needed flexibility to add new knowledge and experience to the models beyond just parameters (e.g. new processes, new equations). Based on the materials and energy at a first level, and both economic and environmental indicators at a second level, the models will allow for flexible changes in the process and for the incorporation of new knowledge from e.g. pilot experience as they will be implemented in an open source Excel based platform. These models will be integrated in an Excel-SuperPro proposed architecture (building up on the strengths of packages such as SuperPro on cost analysis and impact assessment) to allow for the techno economic evaluation of the overall ISEA system as function of design, operational and environmental variables. A software tool will be developed to (i) integrate the models and (ii) apply Monte Carlo based analysis of the possible scenarios in order to inform the SBRC on the future ISEAS design and operation.



MI investigators: Farrukh Ahmad, Andreas Henschel, and Jorge Rodríguez
Duration: 3 years End Date: September 2016

Safe & Sustainable Reuse of Treated Wastewater in Abu Dhabi

Project summary

The reuse of water is a vital alternative for meeting rising water demand in arid regions like Abu Dhabi, where fresh water is limited and demand is largely met by energy-intensive seawater desalination. The proposed research focuses on two critical scientific questions pertaining to the sustainable reuse of treated municipal wastewater: (i) the fate of harmful chemical constituents such as micropollutants, and (ii) the fate of pathogens. We address these problems at all points along the wastewater generation, treatment, and end-use process train, using a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary experimental, computational, and field-scale approach. The end goal of the project is to better characterize the environmental and health risk posed by the treated wastewater, and to suggest solutions for enhancing its quality so that it can be safely be used for a variety of end‐use applications.
Fate (transformation and sorption) studies will be carried out using bench-top processes activated sludge treatment (AST) and membrane bioreactors (MBR) processes using sludge inocula from local WWTPs. Removals of MPs will be estimated against biologically conserved tracers like artificial sweeteners. In addition a combination of stable isotope probing (SIP) and multiple reaction monitoring (MRM) techniques (from HPLC-MS/MS analytical work) will be employed to develop transformation pathways and rates for the target MPs. Using fate results, models will be proposed for MP removal mechanisms to be integrated into known existing full WWT models.
Existing WWT models will be assessed and alternative model structures proposed to predict pollutants removal through conventional WWT plants. The models developed will be calibrated and validated using measured data from both the lab‐scale process operation and from real WWTPs in Abu Dhabi.
This research program aims to help establish safe and sustainable water reuse practices that hold the promise of limiting the region’s carbon footprint and energy demand, while enhancing food and water security.