Research Fellows Directory
Dr James Chong
University of York
I’m interested in how populations of anaerobes (microbes that grow in the absence of oxygen) interact with each other and respond to environmental changes. My research focuses on a process called anaerobic digestion. AD is a biological recycling process: waste organic material is broken down to its constituent parts by a community of anaerobes resulting in gas (mainly methane, the flammable component of natural gas), which can be burned to generate electricity and heat, and a nitrogen-rich “digestate” that can be used as fertiliser. Currently, there is little fundamental difference between AD processes carried out in rural Asia and state-of-the-art facilities in the UK because AD relies on a "black box" microbial community. We have little understanding of how this community of organisms interact, or how the process can be made more efficient.
In addition to sampling “real-world” AD systems, my research group grows strictly anaerobic microbial communities in the lab to study their dynamics. We measure how the population changes mainly by measuring DNA and RNA isolated from samples, but also consider the gas composition and the makeup of the waste. DNA sequencing technologies allow us to track population dynamics and understand how the system changes in response to variations in the composition of incoming material and environmental parameters.
Global population growth is placing increasing pressure on fresh water, energy and food resources. AD reduces the amount of material sent to landfill, the resulting biogas decreases greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. AD is the last step at many wastewater works, recovering energy, clean water, and reducing pathogenic microbes in digestate (reduction is critical for digestate as a resource-friendly crop fertiliser). Better understanding AD provides an opportunity to better manage our water resource, reduce fossil fuel use and enhance food production, effectively recycling and reusing waste, and reducing resource demand.