Q&A: Spinoza Prize winner on the science of water recycling

Professor Mark van Loosdrecht talks about new technologies for water treatment and generating revenue from waste

Mark van Loosdrecht, PhD, was awarded the Spinoza Prize September 9 in a ceremony in The Hague. (Photo by Sascha Schalkwijk)A growing shortage of potable water threatens urbanized areas around the world, and the issue of water reuse is becoming more pressing. Moreover, in a developing circular economy, the recovery of other resources from wastewater is also of increasing importance.

Water Research Editor-in-Chief Mark van Loosdrecht, Professor of Environmental Biotechnology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has been working towards a solution by coming up with energy-efficient processes to remove nitrogen from wastewater, such as the Anammox (anaerobic ammonium oxidation) process, which is able to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90 percent compared to conventional nitrification/denitrification processes. The process can be applied to any waste stream with high concentrations of ammonia or organic nitrogen, including wastewaters from chemical industries, food industries, power plants and those from animal waste.

Dr. Van Loosdrecht is also the inventor of the Nereda technology for efficient wastewater treatment, which controls the growth and formation of microbial communities in granular sludge, from which the biopolymer alginate can be extracted. Pilot studies are currently being carried out on the production of biopolymer from this granular sludge, which is a byproduct of wastewater. The Nereda technology has been designated as an important new Dutch innovation and is starting to make an impact on an international scale. Various full scale installations are running for household wastewater in the Netherlands, Portugal and South Africa, and the technology is being introduced in Brazil and the UK. Another development is the production of bioplastics from wastewater and organic waste streams.

Last week, Dr. van Loosdrecht was awarded the prestigious Spinoza Prize by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) during a ceremony in The Hague. The Spinoza Prize is the highest Dutch award in science and recognizes the global impact of the research undertaken by its laureates.  He was presented with €2.5 million for use in his research.

Prior to the ceremony, Dr. van Loosdrecht was interviewed via email by Elsevier's Katie Brown.

Mark van Loosdrecht, PhD, gives a presentation at the Spinoza Prize ceremony September 9 at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague. (Photo by Sascha Schalkwijk)


Congratulations on receiving this prestigious award. How did you feel when you first learned you would be a Spinoza laureate?

Very honored. It's a firm recognition of my work as a scientist and engineer.

The Spinoza jury highlighted the importance of your research into the behavior of bacteria under dynamic conditions in helping to develop new methods for purifying water. What would you say is the most important achievement of your scientific career so far?

I think the most important achievement so far has been improving the understanding of microbial ecological principles related to biofilm morphology and to behavior of bacteria under dynamic growth conditions. This has led to development of the anammox process for nitrogen removal and Nereda process for municipal wastewater treatment. This means that wastewater produced in cities can be treated more economically, using less energy and sometimes even leading to energy production. In addition to the increased energy-efficiency of wastewater treatment, space requirements are also reduced by 75 percent. Because there is minimal mechanical equipment used in the process, it also means that effective wastewater treatment becomes more feasible for low income countries.

A key focus of your recent research has been investigating the recovery of raw materials from waste streams. Can you explain the motivation behind this and what you aim to achieve?

View Mark van Loosdrecht's research

Free access to Mark van Loosdrecht's researchDr. Mark van Loosdrecht (@MarkvanLoosdrec) and his team study and modify the properties of microorganisms and microbial communities in technical systems, combining research and engineering in the development of technologies.

His current research interests include:

  • Biofilm and granular sludge systems
  • Microbial storage polymers
  • Nutrient removal processes
  • Microbial ecology of engineered systems

Dr. van Loosdrecht has published many scientific articles, a selection of which have been made free to view online until 31 December 2014.

There is a large amount of agricultural waste, food waste and wastewater that could be used to produce chemicals that can be used in society. Examples of products we are working on are biopolymers and bioplastics. The biopolymers can be used in the textile or paper industry or in the production of fibers and coatings. The bioplastics, which have the added advantage of being biodegradable, can be used to replace oil-based plastics. We are currently investigating the production of these compounds in pilot scale processes. The revenue generated from the production of the polymers can cover the cost of the wastewater treatment itself, turning waste treatment from a cost factor to a revenue generating activity.

Despite the huge advances that have been made in the removal of waste from water, using recycled water is something a lot of people still feel uncomfortable with. Do you think this is due to lack of information among the general public? How would you like to see the future of water reuse develop?

Water reuse is needed in large parts of the world where water is scarce. Since most water is used for other purposes than drinking or cooking, smart integration and cascading of water could avert the general negative feeling associated with reused water. For instance, recovered municipal wastewater could be used in industry or agriculture. Other good options are the introduction of recovered wastewater in natural water bodies from where it later is withdrawn again for the production of drinking water.

You collaborate closely with business and industry to implement developments based on your research findings. How important is this aspect of your work, and what implications does it have for you and your team when the processes you have worked to develop are being applied to industry?

Universities should play their role in society; they should not become companies but work with industry and the rest of society to make important improvements to society as a whole. Getting scientific ideas put into practice therefore means that one has to work together with private or public institutions to spread the practical benefits of new technologies beyond the research community. It is of course very nice and a welcome recognition for myself and the team when the technology we have worked to develop is applied in an industry setting. These achievements definitely provide motivation to strive for the next innovation.

How will the Spinoza Prize money help you with your research? Will it enable you to expand into new research areas?

We will use the money for new research in exploring the microbial world, and likely this will lead to new microbial activities which can then be used in new technologies. Currently only 1 percent of the microorganisms present on earth have been characterized. By developing new methodologies for growing these bacteria, we will investigate their potential to be used, especially in the conversion of waste into resources.

What will be your main areas of focus in the next few years?

Exploring microbial diversity and working on new process that will enable a circular economy. In a circular economy there would be no "waste" because we would have energy-efficient processes in place to recycle and reuse waste (for example wastewater or garden waste) as part of a renewable and sustainable circular system. This is what a large part of our research aims to build towards and why it is so important that we find more ways to create useable products or polymers from what we traditionally still call waste.

As the Editor-in-Chief of Water Research, how do you juggle your editorial responsibilities alongside your research and teaching responsibilities?

Being very busy. ☺

Initiatives such as the Spinoza Prize can provide encouragement for young researchers to strive for high-quality research results in their own careers. What advice do you have for young water researchers for a successful career in science?

In general, try to work at interphases between disciplines; it is at these interphases where most new discoveries and developments occur. It is also important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and make sure you play to your strengths. Academic careers require true curiosity and drive.

Actually a video interview produced a while ago called addresses this in more detail:[divider]

Advice to young researchers on search and discovery


Elsevier Connect Author

Katie BrownKatie Brown is Marketing Communications Manager for Elsevier's Aquatic Sciences journals (@AquaticSciences), based in Oxford, UK.

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