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Anaerobic Digestion


What is it? Purpose? Wastewater Treatment.

Mechanism of Anaerobic Digestion Microbiology +
Some Definitions

Application. When is it useful?

Process Requirements/ Process Equipment

Process Design & Consideration - Some Equations

Anaerobic Process Operation Indicators and Causes

of Imbalance

1. Malina J.F. & Pohland F.G., Design of Anaerobic Process for
the Treatment of Industrial and Municipal Waste
2. Grady C.P. & Lim H.C., Biological Wastewater Treatment
3. Wheatley A, Anaerobic Digestion: a Waste Treatment
Technology (TD796.5.A532)
4. Kiely G., Environmental Engineering , 1997, Irwin/McGrawHill
5. Prof. Bungays Website

Well, what is it?

Define Anaerobic Digestion
The use of microbes in the absence of oxygen for the stabilization
of organic material by conversion to methane, carbon dioxide, new
biomass and inorganic products.
Used in treatment of wastewater: Industrial, agricultural, municipal

Okay, what for then?

a. Reducing the solids content and volume of the wastewater
stream. Approximately 25-45% of feed destroyed
b. Stabilization decomposing highly putrescible organic
matter to stable or inert organic and inorganic compounds
Think government regulations, cost minimization
Although widely used in wastewater treatment, the proper
procedures for selection, design and operation of anaerobic
processes are not well understood by many wastewater treatment

Right, why would I prefer A/D?


Production of methane gas (potential source of fuel)

No oxygen requirement

Low nutrient requirement

Low production of biological sludge (low biomass/cell growth)

High treatment efficiency for biodegradable sludge

Inoffensive residual sludge. May be used as soil conditioner

Pathogens are inactivated. Concentration reduced

How does the mechanism work?

First note:
Not all volatile solids in the waste stream are biologically
degradable. 3040% wt of initial remains after anaerobic digestion
See Diagrams
Figure 2.1. - Detailed
Figure 5.2. Simpler
Although sequential in nature, acid and methane fermentation
takes place simultaneously and synchronously in well-buffered,
active digesting system
Maintain a balance between rates of acid and methane production
3 possible steps that is rate limiting.
Depends on the characteristic of the wastewater.
High particulate concentration or high soluble organic
Digestion retention time should be long enough to accommodate.
Think microbes. Keep them happy by keeping healthy
This depends on




Presence of Inhibitors (Toxicity)

Maintain conditions optimum for rate limiting bacteria

Now thats all good. But when does A/D

apply? How do I know when I can use A/D
(Oh you curious engineer!)
Whatever the case, the following two are governing:

Must be economically advantageous

Must achieve wastewater specifications required

Understand, not always stand-alone. Combinations with other

treatment technique. Constitute only PART of treatment system.
Factors to Consider for Screening Applicability:

Origin and Nature of Wastewater

Wastewater Concentration

Most suitable for wastewater with biodegradable COD in

intermediate to high strength range

Organic removal efficiencies increase with increasing

wastewater concentration. Dilute wastewater, BOD load
reduction is insignificant (50%).
Table 2.4

Temperature of Wastewater
Higher temperature, shorter digester retention time

As low as 8 C

Mesophilic (30-40 C)

Thermophilic (50-60 C) Unstable though

Depending temperature of wastewater discharge, heating may

be necessary. Otherwise provide longer retention time (at
larger reactor/capital cost!)

Concentration of Suspended Solids (Insoluble Organics)

High concentration of Insoluble, hydrolysis rate limiting. Need

high retention time 10 to 20 days. Otherwise, reduce
organic loading into digester (More next time)

High soluble organics can use high rate anaerobic digestion.

Retention time several hours only. Careful with entrapment of
solids, can dilute active microbial biomass

Presence of Toxic Compounds

Can inhibit microbes.

Depends on nature of substance, concentration and degree

the process has become acclimatised to. Microbes can
develop tolerance

See Table 2.5 & 2.6. Compare known concentration with table
and assess if process inhibition a serious problem

Expected Treatment Efficiencies

Must meet the specification

Laboratory testing essential to establish this

Mass Discharge Rate of Organic Pollutant

Cost competitiveness of anaerobic process improves as total

mass discharge rate of biodegradable COD becomes larger

Use COD for characterising of organic strength rather than BOD

because BOD tends to underestimate for anaerobic conditions. COD
covers both biodegradable and non-biodegradable however.

So my waste stream can apply A/D. Right,

what are the process requirements for such a
Conditions of the system must be optimum to maintain balance of
the microbial groups; hydrolysis, acid and methane producing
See Table 5.3

Specific growth rate of microbes increase with increasing

temperature in a relatively narrow band
Minimum retention time decreases with elevated temperature,
hence reactor size

Low temperature okay, if long enough residence time allowed

Typical operate in mesophilic region: 30 to 35 C. Thermophilic

unstable and costly.


Methane producing bacteria sensitive to pH. Inhibited at low

pH, less than 6.2. Volatile acids accumulate further drop in
Consensus to maintain operating pH near neutral, 7.0


Effect on growth rate of bacteria by inhibiting (declined).

Consider :
volatile acids - propionic acid limiting
ammonia from protein degradation. Free NH3 more toxic
( toxic if > 150mg/l). pH to control. At pH 7.2, mostly
ammonium ions (toxic if 3000mg/l)
metal ions from addition of base to control pH. Careful not
to exceed toxic levels. No sudden increase and allow
acclimatisation period, can tolerate moderately inhibitory for
some time.
Sulfides from protein degradation. Only soluble sulfides
effect. Precipitate out by addition of iron.
Heavy metals toxic at low concentration. Not too much
worry, precipitate out with sulfides ie no longer soluble.
Naturally occurring usually sufficient.

Rapidity of Changes:

Methanogenic bacteria has lower growth rate compared to

non-methanogenic bacteria, hence slower responses to
Changes to reactor environment should be made at rate
tolerated by methanogenic bacteria ie slowly and in slow
steps. Allow for acclimatisation.


Is the mass of organic matter added per unit volume per unit
Given, loading should not exceed 6.4kgVS/m3/day

High loading higher ammonia level which may be toxic.

More later in design (will revisit)

Okay, what systems are available? Basically,

what process equipment am I looking at?
A/D Technology Available:
See Figure 2.6.
See Table 2.8.
Process Equipment:
Reactor Tanks
Temperature Control/Heating
More next time .

Some review and maybe

Two sludges from waste water stream to be aware of:

Industrial sludges (their waste)

Municipal sludges (our waste)

Objectives of wastewater processes are to:

Reduce BOD, reduce TSS, reduce N & P, and reduce pathogens.
Organics in wastewater stream will deplete DO in waterways, N
and P can lead to eutrophication.

Anaerobic treatment is part of the treatment process for the

wastewater stream. See Figure 12.6 (municipal) and 12.7
(industrial) for schematic for wastewater treatment plant.
Anaerobic digestion (A/D) is part of the sludge treatment
facility, treating sludge from the primary and secondary
Primary treatment

clarification, sedimentation, settling

solids separation by settlement and improves wastewater
quality for secondary treatment

Secondary treatment

biological treatment, reduction of BOD in the clarified

waters/suspended solids.

A/D can also act as a first stage treatment of high strength

organic wastes. That is, it reduces the organic loads to magnitude
of COD that can be accommodated in conventional aerobic
A/D converts the biodegradable material in the wastewater
stream to final products of methane, carbon dioxide, biomass
(little) and inorganics. Through this conversion, it reduces the
solid content/volume and COD of sludge and stabilises the sludge
by degrading the putrescible organic matter.
A/D is not a complete processor of wastewater on its own. It
is an addendum to the process.

Books seem to use Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and

Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) interchangeably (and hence
I do too).

But differentiate that:

BOD measures the amount of oxygen used by
bacteria in degradation of organic matter
COD measures the oxygen equivalent of organic
matter contents in wastewater susceptible to
oxidation by strong chemical. Contains both
biodegradable and non-biodegradable.
And typically, COD removal = 1.5 x BOD removal (Ref 1)
Three Mechanisms Occuring:
Hydrolysis Process conversion of insoluble high molecular
compounds (lignin, carbohydrates, fats) to lower molecular
Acidogenesis Process conversion of soluble lower
molecular components of fatty acids, amino acids and sugars
(monosaccharides) to lower molecular intermediate products
(volatile acids, alcohol, ammonia, H2 and CO2)



Methanogenesis Process conversion of volatile acids &

intermediate products to final product of methane and CO2


(I have included another schematic of methane production, Fig 13.1

which I thought is a good descriptive figure)
Considerations for the A/D Process:

Wastewater Characteristic COD, Suspended Solids




Treatment Efficiency


Application Ranges:
< 50mg/l COD carbon absorption
50 4000mg/l COD Aerobic Digestion
>4000mg/l COD Anaerobic Digestion High Rate/Low Rate
> 50,000mg/l COD Evaporation & Incineration, Wet Combustion

And Todays "Extremely Exciting" Topics are:

Process Design
Operations Monitoring & Problems

What happens to the treated sludge later?

Im an engineer. Wheres the maths? How

is the process design like?
First some definitions & equations:
Volumetric Organic Loading Rate, Bv = Ci(Q/V)=Ci(1/) Eq (1)
Where S=Wastewater Feed Concentration
Q=Wastewater Feed Flowrate
V=Bioreactor Volume
= Space Time
Ci expressed as the mass of Volatile Solid (VS), COD, BOD ..
Depends on method of assay (and which books!)

Solid Retention Time, SRT = Mean Cell Residence Time, MCRT

= 1/ (Ref 1)
is the average time microbes remain in the system
Inverse relationship with specific growth rate
(During inhibition, specific growth rate decreases, hence SRT to
accommodate this growth rate increases)
Hydraulic Retention Time, HRT = V/Q =
is the average time the sludge remains in the system
Something about reactor configurations:
See Figure 13.2, 13.3 and 13.4
a) Two types: high rate and low rate digesters.

Low rate characterised by intermittent mixing, sludge feeding

and sludge withdrawal or no mixing completely (stratified).
High rate characterised by continuous mixing. Shorter
retention time (hence name!)

b. Two generations of reactors: First generation and Second


First generation, HRT = SRT (no recycle, ie biomass


Second generation, HRT not equal to SRT

See Figure 2.6 and Table 2.8

Included just to give an idea of the anaerobic treatment
technologies available.

Suspended growth- good for
wastewater containing high
concentration of particulate
biodegradable material
Supported growth- wastewater
containing mainly soluble
Hybrid - for intermediate
levels of particulates

Process Design Considerations include the following:

Solids Retention Time (SRT)

Hydraulic Retention Time (HRT)

Organic Loading Rate

Gas Production

Tank Configuration

Mixing Systems

Heating Systems

Design criteria:
Want retention time of sludge sufficient to achieve the
specific reduction in volatile solids content (digestion) in the
digested sludge.
This degree of digestion depends on the ultimate disposal of the
digested sludge (more later). Also the organic loading rate, ie the
concentration of solids in the feed controls the volume of the

Retention time affects extent of destruction of volatile solids

and size of digestion reactor. In turn the size of digestion
reactor and concentration of solids in the wastewater feed
dictate the solid loading that the digester can have and still
maintain the required minimum hydraulic detention time.
Note the relationship. A specific reactor size and hence
retention time, will tolerate up to a certain loading before it
Recall: SRT refers to the microbes whereas HRT refers to the
High SRT result in process stability and minimal sludge production,
whereas low HRT reduces reactor volume and capital cost.
Another objective is to maximize the reactor microbe/biomass
concentration. (More microbe, more degradation process) Lead to
development fixed film reactors with inert medium to hold biomass.
The traditional CSTR model, recall that biomass will be loss on
withdrawal of effluent. Also can recycle stream to disconnect SRT
from HRT, by returning biomass to process stream.
Note: HRT=SRT if no recycle. Design as CSTR without recycle
conservative, because SRTmin is highest. To maximize removal
capacity, the SRT is maintained as high as possible. High SRT also
provide buffering capacity.

I found two possible design approaches:

a. Based on SRT
b. Based on volumetric organic loading rate, Bv
In both cases, preliminary laboratory studies were required.

Based on SRT (Ref 2)

Obtain data comparing degree of volatile solid destruction against

Select SRT to match specifications.
Ensure SRT selected is above SRT(min) =1/ max
(ie, enough time for microbes to grow)
For reactor with no recycle SRT=HRT=
Know flowrate, determine reactor volume, V
Calculate loading (Eq.1) and check not exceeding limit specified on
Fig 21.10
If exceeding limit, need to have more dilute inlet feed (alter Q) or
have a higher SRT

No recycle conservative for design because lower

concentration of microbes (biomass) in the system. SRT
Recycle ratios typically 2 to 4 employed. Use mass balance
and SRT, to establish HRT.

Based on volumetric organic loading, rate, Bv (Ref 1)

Obtain data comparing the removal efficiency of process as a
function of organic loading rate.
With Ci and Q measured and Bv selected, V can be estimated using
(This is odd, there was no mention of the SRT. I assume, in their
laboratory testing, a SRT was chosen and efficiency as a function of
organic loading was studied)

A conventional digester: Is like the "CSTR" (But in practise it

doesnt work like the CSTR, ie not perfect mixing)
Design considerations mentioned here apply to a
conventional digester.
Lets look at SRT (since its an important design
In all application, SRT must be maintained at or above the
minimum value to prevent washout and provide a margin of safety
in the event of transient inhibition of reactor biomass or increased
In comes our fudge factor!
Ref 3 established critical retention time = 5 days, and suggested
safety factor of 2.
Ref 1 mentions SRT required range from 4 to 10 days, and suggest
design safety factor up to 3, ie conventional digester have 12 to 30
Finally, some typical figures used as design parameters:
a) Loading:

between 3.2 to7.2 kg VS/m3day (Ref 1, pg 179)

should not exceed 6.4 kg VS/m3day (Ref 2, pg 854)

between 2 to 3 kg VS/m3day (above 3.2 kg Vs/m3day toxicity

of ammonia limiting) (Ref 4, pg 569)

for conventional digester (CSTR, no recycle), loading rates of

to 6.0kg VS/m3day typical or 1 to 10 kg COD/m3day

b) SRT:

Wastewater high in particulate matter (insoluble), hydrolysis

step rate limiting, min SRT is 4 to 10 days (Ref 1, pg 62)
Wastewater high in soluble organics, methanogenesis step
rate limiting, min SRT is 2.5 to 5 days (Ref 1, pg 62)

Municipal wastewater sludge SRT no less than 10 days (Ref 3,

pg 569)

The reactor:
Typically cylindrical with diameters of 5 to 50m and heights 3 to
25m made of steel. Bottom slopes (min 6:1) to the centre to
concentrate digested sludge.
Europe likes the eggs-shaped digesters.
See Figure 5.10 & 5.12
Once reactor is sized, heating and mixing system are
Mixing Configuration:
Some natural mixing from rising gas and thermal convection
Figure 4.2 (Ref 3)
Required to:

prevention of surface scum layer (initial)

eliminate thermal stratification and maintain uniform

disperse feed wastewater within active biomass

eliminate dead zones and isolated pockets

Basic methods:

recirculation of sludge
recirculation of gas through sludge

internal mechanical mixing

gas recirculation most economical

Design - calculate power cost requirement for mixing configuration

Heating Configuration:
Important to maintain temperature as constant as possible. Sharp
fluctuation detrimental for methane forming bacteria especially.
Fluctuation kept to +/- 1 C/day.
Optimum growth temperature range.
More costly for the thermophilic range.
Fouling a problem, heat exchangers must be cleaned regularly.
High concentration of solids, heating requirement reduced from
less water.
Basic methods:

external heat exchangers - concentric tube exchangers

steam injection

direct combustion

Design - calculate heat requirement ie heat to heat feed wastewater

sludge to desired temperature and compensate heat losses
Gas Storage:
Recall methane is formed.
Need to be stored prior to usage.
Traditionally reactors fitted with floating covers that rise and fall
with production
Typical gas production rates - 0.75 to 1m3/kg VS destroyed
60% methane, rest is CO2
Gas recovery system for reuse or gas recirculation for mixing

Sufficient in the feed wastewater stream. Nutrient deficiency is


A Typical Setup for Municipal Waste Treatment

The 2 stage digester:
Before disposal, anaerobic sludge will undergo some type of solids
separation and concentration. Hence the 2 stage digester
See Figure 5.6
First stage is heated and mixed. Active biodegradation.
Second stage digester function to gravity concentrate the digested
sludge (effluent) and thereby reduce the volume of sludge requiring
disposal by separating out the supernatant. No mixing or heating.
Little solid degradation but gas trapped in sludge slowly realised.
Second stage digester can also function as standby digester
capacity and storage of digested sludge. Enables flexibility to cope
with changing loading rate. Therefore, it should be designed with
heating and mixing capabilities (a question of capital cost!).
Be aware:

Digested sludge does not thicken easily because continued gas

production and flotation by sludge saturated by CO2 and CH4
as well as high proportion of fine sized particle
Supernatant fluid contains a considerable amount of volatile
solids and organic constituent. Return of it to head works of
treatment facility impacts performance of other treatment
process adversely. Add to suspended solids, N and P and
oxygen demand in the wastewater.
Recycled supernatant can result in solid build-up in the
plant and hence increase in final effluent suspended

Also C, P and N returned to the liquid process, hence build-up

into effluent stream.

Therefore separate biological, chemical and physical

treatment of supernatant may be need. Depends on
regulations. See Table 5.8 for some process alternative.

My A/D has been built. Do I need to monitor

the operation?
Unbalanced anaerobic treatment indicated by increase in CO2,
decrease in methane and increase in volatile acid concentration.
Unbalanced from changes in loading, temperature and composition
of sludge.
Sufficient time for microbes to acclimate to new environment can
help remedy.
Imbalance more frequent in starting up new digesters.
Basically : Sour digesters are bad.
Control digester upset by reducing loading and maintaining pH
near neutral and time to reacclimate.
Recall process difficulties arise from differences in growth rates of
the two main microbial group, their responses to changes in
organic matter and sensitivity to pH and temperature.
Indicators of Reactor Performance.
No single parameter that can be isolated as best indicator.
Historically, rate of gas production. However, does not describe
environment within digester and usually too late.

The failing digester would trigger a sharp increase in free volatile

acid, carbon dioxide content of gas and decrease in pH.
Parameters that provide insight into condition early enough are:

volatile acids concentration


CO2 content

From the carbonic acid-CO2 system.
Indicate buffering capacity of system. Higher alkalinity, more stable
pH and tolerance to fluctuation in volatile acid concentration.

Daily evaluation of:

Volatile acid concentration -> direct titration

Alkalinity -> direct titration

pH -> electronic pH meter

CO2-> gas chromatography or chemical reaction with sodium


Temperature -> minimize temperature fluctuation (for

biomass activity)

The well behaved digester:

Volatile acid should be low < 100mg/l (Ref 3), normal 200400mg/l (Ref 4) Mainly acetic acid if stable. Stressed digester
butyric and propionic will increase. Some volatile acid can be

pH at 7.0 maintained

ratio of volatile acids to bicarbonate alkalinity <= 0.4. Can

accommodate moderate volatile acid fluctuation

Causes of Imbalance

Increase in loading from increase in concentration or flowrate

of wastewater feed.
Change in reactor temperature

Decrease in effective reactor volume (hence SRT) through

solid deposition

Toxicity from feed wastewater stream

The Fate of the Digested Sludge.

Dried in a drying sand bed or evaporation basin. Leachate collected
and returned to plant.
Dried sludge can be:

Used as soil conditioner.

Mixed with bulking agent and composted

Bury into landfill