SRI PhD students get their chance to shine

The SRI runs an annual PhD research showcase for our students. This provides them with the opportunity to share their research progress and experiences, and to discuss their findings and challenges with their peers and SRI research staff.

Held on January 22nd this year, Dr Paula Vandergert coordinated the seminar bringing together our SRI researchers for a fascinating day of discussions. Highlights from this year’s showcase included:

#Paludiculture

Jack Clough presented his PhD research on paludiculture (wetland agriculture) . Whilst Jack is studying a diversity of topics related to wetland agriculture, he presented the parts of his study investigating novel ways of cultivating Sphagnum moss as a crop.

Why do we need Sphagnum farming? How will it help to conserve peatlands and peat soils?

This moss can be grown as a form of paludiculture – a new farming technique that rewets damaged peat soils to prevent carbon losses, while ensuring a productive series of crops can still be developed on the land. Cultivated Sphagnum can be used as a replacement for peat in horticulture, has medicinal properties (that are currently being investigated), and can be used as a founder material for wetland restoration projects. Jack is targeting several research gaps which remain relevant in his 5th year of his part-time PhD, and now has valuable data to help fill them.

Sphagnum farming research gaps review.

The key results are that we can cultivate Sphagnum effectively on deep peat, and shallow peat soils. Novel products such as BeadaHumok TM and BeadaGel TM supplied by our project partners BeadaMoss are an effective and attractive supply of founder material, and that there is room for innovation within this field.

BeadaHumok™ growth on trial planting plot

#Electric Vehicles

Shaherah Jordan presented her research investigating whether attitudes to money are a factor in electric vehicle adoption in London. Due to the high level of diversity in the capital, Shaherah is investigating whether there are differences in attitudes to money that can be attributed to culture and, if there are, if some of these attitudes are hindering some drivers from switching to electric vehicles.

She is using a quantitative approach with respondents from different cultural backgrounds and the survey covers preferred method of car purchase, attitudes to money and awareness of EV related policy. If you live in London and want to help her with her survey research, you can find it here https://sj.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/ev-adoption-survey.

Shaherah’s research will fill a gap in the area of demographics in electric vehicle studies. In existing literature demographics such as age, gender, education, income and house type are covered. Race is not covered in the literature and this research should offer some scope as to whether it is a cultural proxy that should be taken into consideration in future research and in policy creation.

Sage advice from Shaherah’s presentation for some of the PhD students just embarking on the research projects

Being in the latter stages of her PhD researcher, Shaherah also presented on how your research can be overwhelming and provided helpful advice for the students beginning their studies in relation to the importance of setting out a strategy for completing your research. She highlighted the importance of keeping the essential components of the degree in mind: commitment to/demonstration of robust research, reading, writing and academic admin.

#VeteranTree Ecology

Stephanie Skipp presented her research into the invertebrates of decaying wood habitats.

Dead wood insects perform important roles in the ecosystem. They can also be really quite pretty! This is the colorful, saproxylic longhorn beetle, Anaglyptus mysticus.

The term ‘Saproxylic’ describes organisms that require decaying wood resources to survive. Ongoing depletion of UK woodlands mean that these resources are dwindling and the organisms that require them are under threat of local extinction. Stephanie has been carrying out surveys in open woodland on National Trust estates to identify how saproxylic insects respond to different habitat situations.

Examples of Stephanie’s fieldwork methods – vane trapping.

She is also trialing new ways to introduce extra decay habitats into woodlands through ‘beetle boxes’. These are man-made structures that are filled with decaying wood material, mimicking an ancient, hollowing tree. Stephanie’s research is a collaboration between UEL, Natural England and Buglife. It contributes towards the ‘Back from the Brink’ project which aims to support some of England’s most vulnerable species.

Artificial veteran tree habitat being trialled in Stephanie’s experimental studies

#Microplastics in the Thames

Ria Devereux presented an overview of how she came up with her research topic. Most days she opened a newspaper or turned on the tv, and heard about how bad plastic is for the environment. Having lived right next door to the Thames her whole life, she was surprised by the lack of studies that look at microplastic in the water environment of the Thames Estuary.

Aims and objectives of Ria’s study

As a result, she decided to do a PhD on the topic to find out how much microplastic is in the tidal Thames at multiple locations. Ria’s aim is to investigate the sources of the plastic, and to study how changes in the glorious British weather and tidal fluctuations affect its abundance. Although she is biased because of her love of the Thames, it is important to study rivers because they are such a key source of plastic entering the oceans. The more we can learn about plastic pollution the better our chances of being able to tackle the problem and hopefully this study on the Thames will be able to push the need for a long-term monitoring system for plastic, especially as plastic currently is not considered a pollutant and as a result is not officially monitored.

#LightweightAggregates from Air Pollution Control Residues (APCr)

Ximena Chamorro Bolaños presented her research investigating the potential for recycling Air Pollution Control residues. The thermal processing of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) has gained importance in the UK because this process brings the alternative use of waste as an energy source in Energy from Waste (EfW) facilities, resulting in a more sustainable option to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill. However, a problem associated with MSW incineration and EfW plants is that this process volatilises the hazardous materials contained in solid waste. These contaminants are removed from the gaseous emissions to prevent them being released into the air.

A summary of the production, content, and potential pathway for recycling Air Pollution Control residues

Air Pollution Control residues (APCr) are the solid waste generated as by-products during this cleaning process. This waste is classified as hazardous with absolute entry according to the European Waste Catalogue (EWC) because of their environmental impact associated with its chemical composition and leaching properties. The annual production of APCr in the UK was estimated around 282,000 tonnes by 2017, and this amount may rise to 600,000 tonnes in 2020 because a greater proportion of waste is currently incinerated to produce energy. In the UK, most of APCr generated by MSW incineration plants go to hazardous landfill after treatment. This management approach is highly expensive and undesirable.

The inclusion of APCr in the manufacture of secondary materials, such as lightweight aggregates (LWA) may provide a technology for material recovery, resulting in a more environmentally safe and cost-effective practice. Ximena’s research is focused on the assessment of different options to treat APCr before they can be used in the manufacture of LWA. This will lead to designing cost-effective technologies for material recovery and manufacture of new and novel construction materials. This project is a partnership between SRI and Augean PLC, which is a market leader in waste management solutions and specialised in management of hazardous materials coming from EfW plants.

Well done to all the presenters (and the organiser) on yet another enjoyable PhD research seminar. Looking forward to hearing the latest progress next year!

By Stuart Connop (with help from the presenters)

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