Research
Environmental Engineering

The mechanisms underlying the networks of microbial communal action have long eluded life scientists and consequently have not played a role in the development of engineering solutions. To date, engineering platforms are designed with margins of safety sufficiently large to allow for overall process stability. They are, however, limited in terms of the fundamental understanding of and the ability to fine-tune many microbial processes, two aspects that could greatly improve engineering applications.

SCELSE works in collaboration with industry and organisational bodies on several key environmental engineering systems, such as used water treatment plants that have been selected for improved understanding and harnessing of biochemical transformation processes. Cross cluster research is employed to unravel the biofilm structure-function relationships and target adaptive behaviours of the microbial communities in the systems identified, to enable the development of novel means of controlling microbial activities.

Such information is combined with the quantification of substrate fluxes and the optimisation of microbial functions in controlled bioreactor settings for the development of a new engineering toolbox. For example, detailed knowledge of the specific metabolic rates can help to redefine design and control of engineered processes. An iterative cross cluster cycle of experiments of different scales, combined with systems biology-based analysis, enables the Environmental Engineering cluster to create novel and multi-scale, interactive engineering platforms for multiple processes. This has an immediate impact on a range of engineered and other environmental bioprocesses, including recovery of nutrients from used water by biofilm processes, degradation of pollutants, sequestration of greenhouse gases and reclamation of resources from "waste".

Knowledge of how biofilm communities are organised and interact is of particular interest for combating ba\iofouling - a major problem in water treatment as well as in water distribution. Biofouling is an issue that affects energy consumption and is of substantial concern for the Singapore urban water cycle and will become more pronounced as increasingly marginal water sources are exploited. For example, more than 50% of seawater membrane desalination plants worldwide suffer from severe biofouling problems, yet the development and disruption of biofilms remain poorly understood. Biofilm disruptors, targeting specific nodes for biofilm development and maintenance, will significantly improve the performance of reverse osmosis membrane systems.

Finally, insights into biofilm communities and their control further facilitate risk assessment of whether biofilms enrich and protect human pathogens, as addressed by the Public Health & Medical Biofilms cluster.