Indian Journal of Biotechnology

Vol 6, April 2007, pp 234-238






Studies on treatment of low-strength effluents by UASB reactor and its application
to dairy industry wash waters
P Sankar Ganesh, E V Ramasamy
#
, S Gajalakshmi, R Sanjeevi and S A Abbasi*
Centre for Pollution Control and Energy Technology, Pondicherry University, Pondicherry 605 014, India
Received 19 February 2005; revised 22 June 2006; accepted 18 August 2006
In the backdrop of lack of success achieved by the past workers in using upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB)
reactor for treating low-strength wastewaters, the paper highlights the importance of R&D in this area. The two main
reasons behind the importance of using UASB are: (1) generation of large volumes of low-strength wastewaters, which are
often disposed untreated due to high costs, and (2) the potential of stabilizing the organic wastes by producing valuable
energy as byproduct. Results are presented on the successful operation of UASB in treating low-strength dairy industry wash
waters [Chemical oxygen demand (COD 1200-2000 mg/L]. The reactors achieved treatment efficiency of the order of 75-
85% and were able to withstand shock-loads without adversely affecting the treatment efficiency. One of the reactors which
was accidentally contaminated with acid, recovered quickly.
Keywords: UASB, low strength, dairy wastewater, biogas, methane, organic loading rate
IPC Code: Int. Cl.
8
C08K5/18
Introduction
The upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB)
reactor introduced by Lettinga
1
and subsequently
developed extensively by others
2-10
has now come to
occupy a prominent niche in the domain of biowaste
treatment. With numerous advances made in sludge
development, microbial manipulation, reactor
hydrology, upstream controls, association with other
reactors to generate ‘hybrids’, etc., biodegradable
wastewaters varying greatly in strength and
characteristics can now be treated with UASB. But in
one aspect, viz, handling of low-strength industrial
wastewaters, UASB still calls for R&D efforts. Fig. 1,
based on a number of papers published on the
treatment of industrial wastewaters of different
strengths by UASB during 1999-2004, indicates
that only a small fraction of reports are on low
strength industrial wastewaters. UASB appears most
well suited for high strength wastewaters, followed
by medium strength ones. But low-strength
wastewaters pose special challenge, which must be
met. Such wastewaters generally ensue from washing
operations. Households generate such wastewaters as
sewage; industries do so as streams resulting from
washing of the machinery and the rest of the shop
floor. Such wastewaters are of low-strength but are
large in quantity. They are sufficiently contaminated
to cause pollution of the environment but are so lean
in recoverable material that treating them brings in
insignificant returns. It, therefore, becomes imperative
that techniques be developed to treat such wastes with
as less input of energy and other resources as
possible.
There is no standardized or coded definition of
what constitutes low, medium, or high strength of a
wastewater. In the domain of biodegradable
wastewaters, a chemical oxygen demand (COD) level
of less than 2000 mg/L is generally deemed to
represent ‘low-strength’
11-13
. Indeed many wash
waters contain COD less than 1000 mg/L. A large
number of bioprocess industries–notably dairies,
distilleries, pharmaceuticals, and confectionaries–
which have one or more high-strength wastewater
streams simultaneously generate low-strength
effluents as well.
Dairy industry uses 2 to 5 L of water per L of milk
processed
14
. The wastewater volumes are corres-
pondingly large. Of these, the wash waters have a
COD less than 2000 mg/L, contributed chiefly by
lactose, fats and proteins
15
. To treat low-strength wash
waters most dairies employ aerobic activated sludge
__________
*Author for correspondence:
Tel: 91-413-2655263; Mobile: 91-94432 65262
E-mail: prof_abbasi@vsnl.com
#
Present address: School of Environmental Sciences, Mahatma
Gandhi University, Kottayam 686 008, India
SANKAR GANESH et al: TREATMENT OF LOW-STRENGTH EFFLUENTS BY UASB REACTOR


235
process, which is highly energy intensive and
generates difficult-to-dewater sludge
16
. We have,
therefore, explored the possibility of employing a
high-rate anaerobic process based on UASB reactors
so that some energy can be generated in the form of
methane-rich biogas and some energy saved because
UASB reactors do not need aeration and churning
(which aerobic activated sludge process does).
Studies on the treatment of COD levels less than
2000 mg/L by UASB, reported by various authors
during the last 5 years, are summarized in Table 1.
These reveal that significant (75% or higher) reduc-
tion in COD was achieved only in a few cases.
Buzzini et al
8
obtained 75% reduction in the COD of
diluted black liquor coming from a kraft pulp mill but
at unusually high hydraulic retention times (HRT) of
40 h. The work is, nevertheless, significant because
black liquor contains several chemicals toxic to
methanogenic bacteria. Paulo et al
17
achieved 92%
reduction in methanol COD but only when 1 g of
NaHCO
3
was added for every 1.8 g methanol per L in
the UASB influent. Without the addition of NaHCO
3
,
the process failed completely. Monroy et al
20
obtained
75-80% COD removal in different types of wastes. Of
these, the success with food-processing waste (80%
COD removal at HRT 6 h) is significant as other
reactors consumed rather too large a time (15-48 h).
From the foregoing, it may be seen that the use of
UASB to treat low-strength wastewaters has met with
only sporadic success so far and remains largely
unexplored and unconquered territory. This
background confers special significance to the present
work in which low-strength wastewaters have been
treated to the extent of achieving 85% COD removal
at very low HRT (6 h). We report studies carried out
from the start-up stage to the steady state operation of
UASBs at different effluent concentrations and HRT.
The impact of shock-loads, which reveals the
resilience of the reactors, is also reported.

Materials and Methods
Reactor
The UASB reactors (Fig. 2) used in the present
study were fabricated using borosilicate glass and
housed in thermostated (30±2
o
C) chambers. The
working volume of the reactors was one 1 L. Each
reactor consisted of four sampling ports; one inlet,
which was further diverged into four channels; one
effluent outlet; two gas outlets and a gas-solid-liquid
separator
22
. The feed loading rates were controlled
with peristaltic pumps (Ravel Hi-tech, Rh-P 120 MC),
pH was measured with Systronic grip-D pH meters
(accuracy±0.01 pH units), COD was assessed by the
open reflux method
23
and volatile fatty acids (VFAs)
were analyzed by the method of Dilallo and
Albertson
24
. Biogas quantity was measured with wet
gas flow meters (Gemini, GSI 032) and its quality
was determined by AIMIL-make gas liquid
chromatograph using thermal conductivity detectors.
All the chemicals were of analytical reagent grade
unless otherwise stated. Deionized water, double
distilled in all-glass units of NPL design, was used for
all purposes.

Table 1—Summary of reports on low strength (COD < 2000 mg/ L) industrial wastewater treatment by UASB reactors, 1999-2004

Sl.
No.
Reactor
volume
Industrial wastewater Feed strength
(COD g/L)
OLR
(kg COD m
−3
d
-1
)
HRT
(h)
COD
removal %
Reference
(L)
1 0.92 Methanol 1.8 6 7 - 17
2 0.4 Ethanol & lindane 0.67 6.3 10 41 18
3 10.5 Black liquor 1.4 0.85 40 75 8
4 8.3 Brewery 1.3 28 1 - 19
5 4500 Food processing 1 4 6 80 20
6 2400000 Malting 1.7 2.69 15 77 20
7 8840 Cheese manufacturing 1.8 0.94 48 75 20
8 4.3 Meat processing wastewater 1.5 - - 56 21


Fig. 1—Relative proportion of work done during 1999-2004 on
the treatment of industrial wastewaters of different strengths by
UASB reactors (fraction of papers published out of a total of 108).

INDIAN J BIOTECHNOL, APRIL 2007


236
Feed
The dairy industry wastewater (DIW) stream
resulting from the washing operations at the
Pondicherry Co-operative Milk Producer’s Union
Limited (PONLAIT), situated about 10 km from
downtown Pondicherry, was used in the present study.
The unit processes ~ 50,000 L of raw milk per d and
generates ~ 1,50,000 L of effluent every d. The COD
content of the wash water had the range 350-2,300
mg/L. During the period when the reactors were
operated to develop active, granular, sludge, the feed
was fortified with appropriate nutrients using the
recipe of Zehnder and Wuhrmann
25
.

Operation of Reactors
Two reactors were started with the seed sludge
obtained from the UASBs treating distillery
wastewater at the unit of EID Parrys Ltd., Cuddalore.
The reactors were started with dairy industry
wastewater of strength 300 mg/L COD at 24 h HRT.
Subsequent increase in the feed strength was done
once the reactor performance in terms of COD
removal reached 60%. After assessing the steady state
performance at the feed strength of 1200 mg/L the
reactors were subjected to feed-shock loads up to a
maximum strength of 2000 mg/L COD.

Results and Discussion
The reactors were started with a low influent COD
of 300 mg/L and were maintained in batch mode for 5
d so that the microorganisms in the seed sludge get
acclimatized with the DIW substrate. From the 6
th
d
onwards, the reactors were continuously fed with the
substrate at an HRT of 24 h. The initial organic
loading rate (OLR) was 0.3 kg COD m
-3
d
-1
. After 2
wk of reactor operation, the feed strength was
increased to 450 mg COD/L corresponding to an OLR
of 0.45 kg COD m
-3
d
-1
(Fig. 3). When the COD
removal crossed 60% the OLR was increased to 0.8
kg COD m
-3
d
-1
. The OLR was then increased in steps
to 1.2, 1.8, 2.4, 3.6, and 4.8 kg COD m
-3
d
-1
(Table 2);
each new step was taken when the COD removal
crossed 60% in the previous step. When the HRT was
reduced to 6 h (OLR 3.6 kg COD m
-3
d
-1
), some
portion of the sludge bed went up to the gas-solid-
liquid separator portion in both the reactors, but it
then got back to the sludge bed by itself after a couple
of days at the same HRT.
The reactors were operated for over 3 months at
this OLR, which corresponded to an influent COD of
1200 mg/L and HRT 6 h. The COD removal hovered
between 70% and 85% in UASB-A, and between 70%
and 80% in UASB-B.
On the 100
th
d of reactor operation, dilute acid
water from the gas displacement system accidentally
entered into reactor A due to back suction. A severe
washout of sludge occurred and the COD removal
rate plunged from ~ 75% to 35.8% (Table 3). To
neutralize the acidity caused by the accidental inflow,
dilute (1 M) sodium hydroxide solution was added to


Fig. 2—Schematic representation of the UASB reactors used in
the study.



Fig. 3—Start up performance of the UASB reactors treating dairy
wastewater. The influent COD was 300 mg/L from day 6 to 19
and increased to 450 mg/L from day 20.

SANKAR GANESH et al: TREATMENT OF LOW-STRENGTH EFFLUENTS BY UASB REACTOR


237
reactor A along with the feed till the pH of the
effluent reached 6.9. To compensate the sludge lost
from the reactor, equivalent quantity of fresh sludge
from another UASB was added. These steps restored
the treatment efficiency of the reactor by the 120
th
d
(Table 3).
The reactors were subjected to sudden increases in
OLR, taking it from 4.80 to 9.60 kg COD m
-3
d
-1
in
four steps within 10 d (Table 4). This did not
adversely affect the COD removal rate at all and it
remained within the same range as it was before the
shock loads of COD. The quantity of biogas generated
daily per unit of reactor volume increased with an
increase in the OLR and was close to 1 m
3
(1000 L)
per m
3
of reactor volume at the OLR of 8.64 kg COD
m
-3
d
-1
(Table 4).
The study reveals that ~ 75-85% of COD was
removed from dairy wash waters coming into the
Table 2—Performance of the UASB reactors during OLR between 0.80 and 4.8 Kg COD m
-3
d
-1


COD removal % Effluent pH Biogas yield (L m
-3
d
-1
) Period
(d)
HRT
(h)
Influent
COD
(mg/L)
Organic
loading rate
(kg COD
m
-3
d
-1
)
UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B

36 18 600 0.80 26.1 28.5 6.8 6.8 284.3 280.6
38 18 600 0.80 45.6 48.8 6.9 6.8 295.5 299.3
43 18 600 0.80 66.6 56.4 7.1 7.0 314.3 321.7
44 12 600 1.20 48.8 33.3 6.8 6.9 335.6 343.0
48 12 600 1.20 69.7 66.6 6.8 6.9 325.0 328.6
49 12 900 1.80 55.0 50.5 6.9 7.0 349.4 350.2
51 12 900 1.80 65.1 66.6 6.8 7.1 359.2 353.9
53 9 900 2.40 60.2 59.6 7.1 7.2 359.2 359.2
60 9 900 2.40 67.0 67.5 7.4 7.2 353.9 365.2
71 6 900 3.60 65.3 64.1 7.4 7.4 366.6 381.6
76 6 900 3.60 68.6 69.9 7.4 7.3 362.8 381.6
81 6 1200 4.80 59.6 61.5 7.5 7.4 381.6 392.8
85 6 1200 4.80 71.2 70.2 6.6 6.5 404.1
434.8

Table 3—Long-term performance of the UASB reactors at an OLR of 4.8 Kg COD m
-3
d
-1


COD removal % Effluent pH Biogas yield (L m
-3
d
-1
) Period
(d)
HRT
(h)
Influent
COD
Organic loading
rate UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B
(mg/L) (kg COD m
-3
d
-1
)

87 6 1200 4.80 75.6 76.9 6.7 6.7 425.1 434.8
100 6 1200 4.80 35.8 71.2 4.5 6.9 293.7 448.1
104 6 1200 4.80 45.1 73.0 6.9 6.9 313.2 439.2
105 6 1200 4.80 38.7 72.7 7.1 7.0 365.1 440.0
118 6 1200 4.80 35.0 74.8 7.4 7.1 409.9 451.6
120 6 1200 4.80 70.0 77.5 7.8 7.3 505.1 538.8
124 6 1200 4.80 71.6 69.6 7.3 7.4 523.5 493.9
128 6 1200 4.80 73.0 71.0 7.5 7.4 749.8 574.7
135 6 1200 4.80 72.7 74.2 7.4 7.3 542.3 527.5
156 6 1200 4.80 75.0 77.5 7.3 7.4 643.5 651.0
170 6 1200 4.80 85.7 70.5 7.4 7.6 748.3 591.1
177 6 1200 4.80 71.3 76.3 7.4 7.2 748.3 592.6
184 6 1200 4.80 84.5 79.6 7.2 7.2 969.6
678.7

Table 4—Performance of the UASB reactors during feed shock loading

COD removal % Effluent pH Biogas yield (L m
-3
d
-1
) Period
(d)
HRT
(h)
Influent
COD
(mg/L)
Organic loading
rate
(kg COD m
-3
d
-1
)
UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B UASB-A UASB-B

201 6 1400 6.72 84 76.0 7.3 7.3 898.0 823.1
204 6 1600 7.68 86 74.0 7.2 7.3 898.0 860.3
207 6 1800 8.64 82 73.3 7.3 7.2 1040.9 969.3
210 6 2000 9.60 85 75.0 7.3 7.4 1167.4 987.8
INDIAN J BIOTECHNOL, APRIL 2007


238
UASBs at COD concentrations of 1200-2000 mg/L at
6 h HRT. This means that the wash water exiting from
the UASBs have COD in the range 180-500 mg/L.
Such dilute effluents can be easily and quickly
polished by short duration (1-2 h) aeration
23
.

Conclusion
This study establishes the suitability of UASB
reactors in treating low-strength (< 2000 mg/L COD)
industrial wastewaters in general and dairy industry
wash water in particular. The consistency of reactor
performance even when COD loading is changed
quickly over a wide range of values indicates the
robustness of the system. The reactors appear capable
of treating the wash waters with a high degree of
consistency even when the influent strength may vary
due to across-the-week flow variations, shock loads,
etc.

Acknowledgement
SAA thanks the Department of Biotechnology,
Government of India, for Project BT/PR
4741/AGR/21/182/2004. PSG and SG thank the
Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New
Delhi, for financial assistance in the form of SRF and
RA, respectively.

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