Activate Award winner Brenda Parker: decontaminating polluted water with micro-organisms

"I’m really grateful to the WCMT as my fellowship has been a huge catalyst for my interdisciplinary work that bridges biology and design. The Activate award will enable me to work with a team to develop our prototype system, and begin to test how this might perform in the field" - Brenda Parker, Fellow

The problem

Heavy metal pollution from old industrial sites is a significant issue worldwide. In the UK some 1,500km of rivers are affected by it, and in post-industrial areas like Devon and Cornwall there are elevated levels of cadmium and zinc in streams and rivers. These metals persist in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain. Bioremediation systems, which use microorganisms to capture or convert contaminants into less toxic forms, can be complicated and expensive - and do not engage local communities in their roll-out.

The Activate award

Biochemical engineer Brenda Parker (CF 2014) has been given a grant from the Activate Fund to prototype a sustainable bioremediation system. This uses ceramic tiles inlaid with algae, a natural microorganism that can help to capture contaminants in water. Additionally, by collaborating with architects, Brenda hopes to show that these ceramic tile-based systems can be beautiful as well as functional.

In the first year, Brenda will create a set of design prototypes to test in the laboratory. She will experiment with different clay composites, techniques of glazing for the tiles, and various materials for immobilising algae. She will form a social enterprise to work with communities in areas affected by water pollution. And she will write a publication to disseminate her findings, describing design methodologies for working with bioremediation.

"The Activate Fund will enable me to take the first steps in advanced prototyping our idea for a bioremediation system, enabling me to work with ceramic specialists. The resources also allow me to write up many of the ideas I have been developing since my Churchill Fellowship so I can share with others from the science and design communities" - Brenda Parker, Fellow

Success in the medium-term will take the form of at least one installation and a working prototype that demonstrates successful removal of pollutants through scientific testing. In the longer term, Brenda hopes to grow an interdisciplinary team that can expand the project’s remit into dealing with other forms of pollution and develop other natural and sustainable methodologies for the treatment of contaminated water.

Brenda hopes this will have positive impacts on communities and ecosystems. She aims to communicate best practice through published articles, and would like to see her ideas for the design of bioremediation systems adopted elsewhere by water charities and NGOs.

The award recipient

Brenda is a lecturer in biochemical engineering at University College London. In 2014 she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to explore biological approaches to land and water restoration. She spent ten weeks in Mongolia, China and India, visiting contaminated sites and exploring bio-remediation. Since her Fellowship, she has been researching algal bioremediation.

The Activate Fund

Brenda’s award is a grant from the Activate Fund. This is a new programme from WCMT which supports the activation or acceleration of Churchill Fellows’ projects. It provides dedicated funds, advice and support during the key period when Fellows first return from their research overseas, and start to make change happen in the UK.

The Activate Fund is a three-year pilot project, making its first grants in 2020. The Activate grants total £101,000, making an average grant of £14,400. The scheme has been developed in consultation with Fellows, to respond to their practical needs.

View Brenda Parker's profile

Fellows wishing to apply can find out more in the Fellows’ area of our website.

Find out more about the Activate Fund

Read Brenda's report