Harnessing non-growing metabolically-active and chemically beneficial bacteria in colloidal polymer biocoatings

Bacteria can perform many useful industrial functions, such as cleaning water, removing toxins from the environment, and recovering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For bacteria to be applied in useful applications, often they must be contained and controlled. In this project, bacteria will be encapsulated in polymer coatings so that their metabolism is active but they are non-growing. The research will investigate improved ways to make these biocoatings to prolong the bacterial metabolic activity - taking an interdisciplinary approach. A range of applications, such as the production of biofuels (e.g. hydrogen) or biomass (small organic molecules), will be explored.

Start date

1 October 2021


4 years.

Application deadline

Funding source

EPSRC Industrial CASE studentship with sponsorship from Johnson-Matthey

Funding information

Full funding (tuition fees and stipend) is provided. The stipend will £18,609 in the first year, followed by annual increments, rising to £20,056 in the final year.


The aim of this research is to develop biocoatings for useful functions. A biocoating is a synthetic polymer layer that encapsulates non-growing, metabolically-active bacteria. The coating is deposited from polymer particles and bacteria in medium. The particles coalesce to encapsulate the bacteria. Challenges in the manufacture of biocoatings include maintaining sufficient permeability to allow the hydration of the bacteria cells, and great enough adhesion to the polymer phase to prevent the escape of the bacteria. The microorganisms in a biocoating are confined to prevent their uncontrolled growth and fouling of their surroundings, which could also lead to mechanical stress.

The research will investigate the encapsulation of species of bacteria, including genetically-modified variants and altruistic mixed species, that  can generate hydrogen gas (useful as a biofuel), synthesise organic molecules (biomass), or capture gases and toxins from the environment. The viability and metabolic activity of the bacteria within the biocoatings will be characterised and optimised. Confocal microscopy and scanning electron microscopy will be used to determine the microstructure of the bicoatings. Assays will be used to characterise the metabolic activity of the bacteria. The output of products will be measured using bioreactors.

This project will suit someone with interests in interdisciplinary research at the boundaries of the physical, chemical and biological sciences. The research will use the Soft Matter laboratories and also the Microbiology laboratories at the university. The student’s home Department will be Physics, but an undergraduate degree in that subject is not expected.

The project will be conducted in collaboration with Johnson Matthey, the industrial sponsor.  Johnson Matthey (‘JM’) is a FTSE 100 specialty chemicals company. It is a leader in sustainable technologies, underpinned by science and with a reputation for world-class innovation. The group is highly profitable, with an operating profit of £539m in the year to March 2020, but it believes that performance should not be measured by profit alone – it is also about running the business in the most sustainable way. Founded in 1817, Johnson Matthey has grown to a company employing circa 13,000 people with operations in over thirty countries worldwide.

The PhD student will have supervisors in both the Department of Physics and in the School of Biosciences.

Profiles of supervisors:

Industrial sponsors (Johnson Matthey)


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The student will work in the modern facilities of the Soft Matter Physics Laboratories along with the Microbiology Laboratories. There will be regular meeting with industrial sponsors at Johnson-Matthey.

Eligibility criteria

Applicants are expected to hold a first or upper-second class degree in chemistry, microbiology, or relevant field of engineering (or equivalent overseas qualification), or a lower-second plus a good Master’s degree (distinction normally required). Some experience in techniques of both chemistry and microbiology is desirable for the project, but it is not essential, as training will be provided.

This studentship is available for UK students only. 

IELTS requirements: IELTS 6.5 or above (or equivalent) with 6.0 in each individual category.

How to apply

Apply through the university’s Physics PhD programme page

Please clearly state the studentship title and supervisor (Professor Joseph Keddie) on your application. Please notify Professor Keddie by e-mail  when you have submitted your on-line application.

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Application deadline

Contact details

Joseph Keddie
09 BB 03
Telephone: +44 (0)1483 686803
E-mail: J.Keddie@surrey.ac.uk

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