Behind the PhD degree: Bárbara Vital

Mesmerized by the Olympic swimmers, PhD Bárbara Vital has felt a passion for water for a long time. It took her from Brazil to Europe in chase of Wetsus. And, despite her own initial disbelieve, she managed to improve the already high-tech blue energy set-up at the Afsluitdijk.

The people behind the science, and the science behind the people


Bárbara: “When I was about six years old, I distinctly remember the Olympic games. Two sports fascinated me: swimming and volleyball. Water has always had my interest. Its variable properties, its uses – how it’s something we drink, and something we can float on – it’s astonishing. I did swimming sports for a while, but my intrigue in water never stopped. I used to take my holiday pictures at lakes and rivers, always.”

It’s this affection that set her up for a degree in Environmental Engineering in her home country, and later brought her to do Environmental Technology too on an Erasmus program in Europe. Which eventually led her to Leeuwarden. “Applied water research in close cooperation – in Europe, built for the future, all those words sounded perfect.”

Initially, she planned to do research on biofilms in drinking water systems, but Olga Sójka got that topic. Bárbara received another offer instead: come work with the blue energy theme – you’ll still get to work with bacterial growth, but in another setting. Bárbara, however, was not so sure about that: “They realized my expertise before I did, but in hindsight, I’m glad they did.”

It meant that the researcher got to work at the blue energy test facility at the Afsluitdijk on a fully engineered-oriented topic. She was to produce findings preventing bacterial build-up on the various filters needed to treat the water that will be used for energy production. A topic that a previous PhD candidate had quit on, and one at an advanced stage of research.

At the Afsluitdijk

“It had me overwhelmed and was a bit scary to start,” Bárbara says, “The expectations were high, someone had already been working on the topic for a year, and I still had to make it my own.” And while surrounded by experts, she managed to do it.

Rather rapidly, she found herself at the REDstack’s Blue Energy facility at the Afsluitdijk – away from the Wetsus lab. “I actually enjoyed that, to be more by myself. I had freedom, did not have to wait at others because they were using a machine I wanted to use, and I could do the cleaning on my way,” the scientist adds smilingly.

Bárbara had to build her own set-ups to discover the influence of different flushing, flowing, and cleaning regimes that would least foul the energy-generating blue energy membranes – or stacks. Discovering the effects of backwashing, filtration methods, and flushing intervals. “It was very applied research – lots of engineering and learning to learn by myself, but I enjoyed it.”

After quite the puzzling, she found a counterintuitive truth: if you want a clean stack, you don’t need the cleanest water. Filtering out the smallest particles makes biofilm formation more likely. “You need more particles to get less bacteria in the end.  And we could get that with our own built dual-media filter.” And she figured the flow desired to keep the apparatus as clean as can be, while being economical.


“I’m happy I did my PhD here, there is great infrastructure here to do research. It was good I did applied research in the end.”

“Academia is not for me though, but I already have a place at SusPhos – a company that recovers phosphorus from sewage sludge ash. Doing lots of lab work as a process engineer, more so than during my PhD even. My job is to find new ways of urban mining.”