Bioavailability of heavy metals to urban agricultural food and biofuel crops and their remediation potential

Lead supervisor: Dr Jill Edmondson, Animal and Plant Sciences
Co-supervisor(s): Dr Manoj Menon, GeographyDr Janice Lake, Animal and Plant Sciences

Deadline: Thursday 23 February 2017

Applications for this project have now closed.

Project description

More than half the world’s population live in urban areas. Consequently urban areas are drivers of global change and there is heavy reliance on imported food and energy. Increasing sustainable own-grown food and biofuel production in urban areas could reduce this environmental impact.

Urban soils can contain high concentrations of heavy metals which may pose a risk to human health if used for food production. However, these heavy metals often co-occur with black carbon, a suite of molecules ranging from soots to biochar. The components of urban soils that control movement of heavy metals into own-grown crops are undetermined, but research has linked black carbon to reduced pollutant bioavailability. This project will address two key questions:

Short rotation coppice willow, a second generation biofuel crop, has been proposed as a sustainable way to remediate contaminated soils as it naturally accumulates heavy metals. This presents the opportunity to simultaneously remediate urban land unsuitable for food production, whilst producing a biofuel. In addition, biochar black carbon, which can be produced when short rotation coppice is used as a feedstock for energy production, has the potential to reduce pollutant bioavailability. Similarly to willow, vegetables from the Brassicaceae family may also have remediation potential as they have an affinity for heavy metal uptake.

This project will establish an own-growing and short rotation coppice experiment in an urban allotment site and a park grassland, working with our collaborative partners Leicester City Council. This will investigate the comparative rates of uptake of heavy metals by short rotation coppice willow and a Brassicaceae vegetable crop in the presence or absence of short rotation coppice willow biochar. The field manipulation experiment will be coupled to a soil-to-plant growth experiment in a controlled environment to determine the influence of different forms of black carbon, soots and biochar, on the bioavailability of heavy metals to staple UK own-grown fruit and vegetable crops. This project will address a critical knowledge gap in the understanding of the potential for the sustainable use greenspace soils in cities and towns for urban agricultural food and biofuel production.

The PhD student will be supervised by Dr Jill Edmondson, an urban ecologist and soil scientist with special interest in the interaction between soils and ecosystem service provision, Dr Manoj Menon, a soil scientist with interests in biotic (microbial and plant roots) interactions in soils, soil physics and hydrology, soil biogeochemical cycles, non-invasive imaging and modelling of soil processes, and Dr Janice Lake, a plant physiologist with interest in applied climate change research including biomass substitute for fossil fuels.

Keywords: urban agriculture, ecosystem services, soil, contaminated land, sustainability, food security

Subject areas: agricultural sciences, botany / plant sciences, ecology and conservation, agricultural chemistry, environmental chemistry, agronomy and soil sciences, ecotoxicology and pollution, biochemistry, geography, environmental science

Funding notes

This four-year studentship will be fully funded at Home/EU or international rates. Support for travel and consumables (RTSG) will also be made available at standard rate of £2,627 per annum, with an additional one-off allowance of £1,000 for a computer in the first year.  Students will receive an annual stipend of £17,336.