Advanced Water Management Centre

Keynote Speaker

Willy Verstraete

Gent University

Reactive nitrogen and serendipity. 

Over the past centuries, the development of wastewater treatment processes was driven by the need to mitigate disease and unpleasant odours in evolving, industrialised societies. In recent decades, the removal and breakdown of wastewater pollutants has become a priority for the prevention of eutrophication of receiving waters. In this context, organic nitrogen is generally removed from wastewater by mineralisation to ammonia, followed by nitrification, and subsequent denitrification. Consequently, most wastewater nitrogen is released to the atmosphere as dinitrogen gas. Since ammonia is produced on an industrial scale through the Haber-Bosch process, recovery of reactive nitrogen (ammonium and nitrate) from waste streams has not been a priority to date. This is in contrast to the increasingly common practice of organic carbon recovery from waste in the form of biogas.

Recent discussion on planetary boundaries have delivered the startling revelation that anthropogenic changes to the global nitrogen cycle are having a profound effect, and the environmental costs arising from industry and agriculture are overwhelmingly externalized. Therefore, the global question is how to deal with nitrogen in a more sustainable and holistic way.

Recently, a new approach has been proposed where the goal is no longer to destroy reactive nitrogen but to develop technologies to incorporate low value mineral nitrogen into protein-rich microbial biomass. The incorporation of nitrogen into microbial protein can be driven by various mechanisms such as providing organic carbon and electron donors like hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Hydrogenotrophic microbial growth, for instance, delivers multiple benefits by incorporating ammonium, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen, thereby not only fixing carbon dioxide but also converting ammonium into valuable, protein-rich biomass in an efficient and sustainable way. This new concept up-cycles reactive nitrogen and transforms what was considered waste into valuable products such as human food, animal feed, and organic slow-release fertilizer. The market potential for these valorization chains are under exploration, but there is no doubt that there are substantial, future opportunities.

Emeritus Professor Willy Verstraete was professor and head of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Technology (CMET) at Gent University, Belgium for over 30 years. Over this time he has mentored innumerable postgraduate students and staff, and he continues to be influential in science and engineering at an international scale.

Willy’s research has focused on microbial resource management i.e., the design, operation and control of processes mediated by mixed microbial cultures in drinking water production, aerobic wastewater treatment, anaerobic digestion of wastewaters and sludges, solid state fermentation of organic residues, and bioremediation processes of soils and sediments. His research has received international accolades including the most prestigious scientific award in Belgium —­ the National Science Foundation Excellence in Science Prize (2005). He has received many professional awards including the IWA Imhoff Award for his contribution to water biotreatment, the IWA and the International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME) Ardern and Lockett Award for his contribution to water engineering and microbial ecology, and the Einstein Professorship for his contribution to environmental sciences from the Chinese Academy of Applied Sciences at Shenyang. Recently, Nature Microbiology published a new archaeal phylum, Verstraetearchaeota, recognizing the contributions of his team to the development of engineered microbial ecosystems.

Willy has served on many international advisory committees including appointment as General-Secretary of the European Environmental Research Organization (EERO), and the European Research Council (ERC) in the domain of Life Sciences. He currently is active member of the board of 3 of several spin-off companies successfully established from his research in applied microbial ecology of environmental technology, health, food and feed. He has been on the editorial board for Journal Microbial Biotechnology and Environmental Science and Technology, and is one of the most Highly Cited Researchers, with several publications in the top 1% of the respective field. In total his publications have been cited over 35,000 times.

He is a Fellow of the International Institute of Biotechnology, and a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Belgium, currently coordinating an international Thinkers programme within the Academy on Water and Climate Change Resilience. Very recently, Willy was elected chairman of the board of the Science Foundation FWO of Flanders, Belgium, and was nominated Honorary Fellow at the KWR Watercycle Research Institute of the Netherlands for his contributions to responsible resource and environmental management.

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For further information about this conference, please contact:

Sharon James
Conference Secretariat

p: +61 7 3346 7205