You are on page 1of 6

Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915 920

Air sparging of a submerged MBR for municipal wastewater

In-Soung Chang, Simon J. Judd *
School of Water Sciences, Cranfield Uni6ersity, Bedfordshire, MK43 0AL, UK
Accepted 8 October 2001

The performance of a submerged tubular membrane bioreactor (MBR) adopting two coarse bubble aeration (sparging) modes
is reported. In the first mode, air is injected to the membrane tube channels so that mixed liquor circulates within the bioreactor
(air-lift mode). In the second mode, the membrane lumen is subjected to intermittent sparging (air-jet mode). The performance
in each case was evaluated against primary municipal wastewater effluent (settled sewage). The flux was found to increase by 43%
when aeration was introduced to the air-lift module. No further flux increase was observed on increasing the gas flow from 1 to
10 l min 1. The air-jet module performance was constrained by clogging due to slow accumulation of sludge inside the lumen,
which was not completely ameliorated by the action of the air jet. On applying a periodic backflush to remove the accumulated
matter, the permeability attained from the air-jet aerator exceeded that of the air-lift module. 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All
rights reserved.
Keywords: Activated sludge; Aeration; Fouling; Flux; Membrane bioreactor; Sparging

1. Introduction
Interest in the membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology for wastewater treatment has increased due to
increasingly stringent legislation, the opportunity for
water reuse/recycling membrane processes it presents,
and continuing advancement and decreased costs of
membrane technology. Advantages offered by MBRs
over conventional treatment technologies are well
known and have been recently reviewed [1].
The principal limitation of this process lies in membrane fouling which is mainly associated with the deposition of a filter cake or fouling layer onto the
membrane surface, thus limiting the permeate flux.
Membrane fouling leads to frequent cleaning and/or
replacement of membranes, which then increases operating costs. Various methods have been adopted to
control fouling during the operational cycle of the
MBR process, most of which in some way increase the
shear rate near the membrane solution interface and so
enhance mass-transfer. Since the bubbles generated by
* Corresponding author. Tel.: + 44-1234-750111x2542; fax: +441234-751671.
E-mail address: (S.J. Judd).

aeration are essential for suppressing the build-up of

the cake most submerged MBRs adopt a configuration
allowing the membrane surface to contact intimately
with the air bubbles [24], which then induce a moderate shear stress.
Flux improvement can be also obtained by injection
of large air bubbles into the tubular or hollow fibre
membrane module. Cabassaud et al. [5] have shown
that a slug flow regime limits the deposition of bentonite particles onto a hollow fibre membrane, and
Ghosh and Cui [6] determined similarly enhanced mass
transfer ultrafiltration (UF) of dextran solution under
slug flow conditions. Microfiltration (MF) of biologically treated wastewater with a mineral membrane
showed the flux to more than treble on increasing the
gas velocity by a factor of 7 [7]. In all these cases, the
injected gas is envisaged to form complex hydrodynamic conditions inside the membrane module, which
increase the wall shear stress and so suppress membrane
Gas sparging, the introduction of large air bubbles,
has proved to be an effective and simple technique for
enhancing physical separation MF and UF processes,
but little information is available which quantitatively

0032-9592/02/$ - see front matter 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 0 3 2 - 9 5 9 2 ( 0 1 ) 0 0 2 9 1 - 6


I.-S. Chang, S.J. Judd / Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915920

Fig. 1. Schematic diagram of the experimental set-up for the submerged MBR (1) bioreactor; (2) air-jet module; (3) air-lift module; (4) pressurised
backwashing tank; (5) flow meter; (6) adjustment valve; (7) solenoid valve; (8) pressure gauge; (9) level sensor; (10) diffuser; (11) visualisation tube;
(12) prefilter.

assesses flux improvement by gas sparging for submerged MBRs specifically. This study aims to appraise
the effects of two types of air sparging applied to the
submerged MBR. In the first the air is intermittently
introduced as a jet from a sealed end of the membrane
module (air-jet mode). In the second air is introduced
as coarse bubbles into the membrane tube channels so
as to allow the mixed liquor to circulate in the bioreactor (air-lift mode). The efficacy of each aeration mode
was evaluated for an MBR challenged with a municipal
wastewater matrix.

ially located at the bottom of each tube (Fig. 2a). The

gas flow rate was adjusted using a flow meter (5) and a
needle valve (6). Manipulating of a timer connected
with the solenoid valve (7) allowed the pulsation frequency to be controlled. This pulsation generated upward gas flow, which then periodically swept the
surface of the membrane module at a flow rate of 5 l
min 1, a pressure of 1 bar and a pulsation frequency of
Table 1
Specification of the membranes and tubular modules

2. Material and methods

The schematic diagram of the experimental set-up is
shown in Fig. 1. The bioreactor (1) was constructed of
perspex having a working volume of 0.06 m3. Two
tubular type membrane modules (2 and 3) were employed with water flowing from lumen to shell side. The
transmembrane pressure (TMP) was applied by a hydrostatic head of 3.4 and 7.1 kPa for the air-jet and the
air-lift, respectively. Table 1 shows details of the specification of each module and membrane.
Compressed air was supplied intermittently through
the nozzles into air-jet module (2). Nozzles were co-ax-

Raw material
Nominal pore
Surface area
Number of
Tube inner

Air-jet module (inside

the bioreactor)

Air-lift module
(outside the bioreactor)

0.2 mm

0.2 mm

0.27 m2
0.48 m

0.32 m2
0.51 m

9.5 mm

9.5 mm

Milleniumpore (UK)

Milleniumpore (UK)

I.-S. Chang, S.J. Judd / Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915920


Fig. 2. Configuration of the tubular membrane module for the air-jet (a); and air-lift (b).

0.5 s 1. A visualisation device (11) made of transparent

tube with the same dimension as the membrane channels allowed the flow pattern to be observed. The
air-lift membrane module (3) was mounted outside the
bioreactor. The air stream was injected into the lower
end of the vertical membrane module (Fig. 2b), creating
an air-lift which circulated the mixed liquor around the
bioreactor and membrane module.
Backwashing was provided using permeate water
stored in an air-pressurising tank (4). The backwashing
interval was controlled by the timer and solenoid valves
(7), and was actuated for 2 min every 30 min of
operation. The average backwashing pressure was
around 0.6 bar. To provide the biomass with sufficient
dissolved oxygen, the coarse aeration was supplemented
with a separate fine bubble aerator at the base of the
bioreactor (10). Screened and settled primary effluent
from the Cranfield University sewage treatment works
were supplied to the bioreactor. Prior to the bioreactor,
influent wastewater was filtered again with a prefilter
The permeate flux was calculated from measuring the
time taken to collect a known filtrate volume, and
adjusted to a reference temperature of 20 C by accounting for changes in viscosity:


J20 =JT


where v and J refers to flux and viscosity and the

subscripts T and 20 refer to the mean operating temperature in C and 20 C. Measurement of water flux with
mains water was carried out before and after each
filtration experiment to verify the degree of fouling and
the resistance-in-series model, as employed in previous

studies [8], was applied to analyse the fouling behaviour

The MLSS concentration was determined in accordance with Standard Methods [9], and COD analysis
carried out in accordance with a US EPA approved
method utilising Hach Laboratory Method 8000 (Spectrophotometer Model DR/2010).]

3. Results and discussion

3.1. Air-lift module

The two-phase flow pattern depends on the air-injection factor (m) defined as:

(Qg + Ql)

where Qg and Ql are the superficial gas and liquid flow

rate, respectively, both of them calculated as if each
phase was circulating discretely in a tube. The flow
pattern, as classified according to the value of m, is
defined as [10]:
bubble flow, mB 0.2: air bubbles are dispersed in the
liquid phase;
slug flow, 0.2BmB 0.9: flow comprises alternate
slugs of gas and liquid; and
annular flow, m\ 0.9: continuous gaseous phase occupies the centre of the pipe.
It is well known that slug flow is the most efficient
regime for significant enhancement of flux [11].
Fig. 3 shows the effect of gas flow rate on water flux
for the air-lift module. No improvement in flux was
observed on applying aeration to mains water, pre-

I.-S. Chang, S.J. Judd / Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915920


Fig. 3. Flux decline as a function of air flow-rate for the air-lift

module during filtration of tap water.

Fig. 4. Flux decline as a function of air flow-rate for the air-lift

module during filtration of mixed liquor of activated sludge.

sumably because no substantial fouling layer persists in

this case. Filtration of the activated sludge mixed liquor
(MLSS concentration= 3200 mg l 1), on the other
hand, was enhanced by aeration (Fig. 4), increasing by
43% (from 23 to 33 lm 2 h 1) on increasing m from 0.1
to 0.5. However, no further increase of flux was observed as the gas flow increased, even when the flow
regime changed from bubble (m B 0.2) to slug flow
(m \0.2). This appears to be at odds with other reported
data showing flux enhancement on increasing m [11,12].
The absence of any apparent flow regime effect in the

current study presumably reflects on the relatively low

contribution to the overall hydraulic resistance from the
cake layer, which would be expected to be influenced by
coarse bubble aeration, compared with irreversible or
internal fouling, which would not. To verify this, a
simple resistance model was applied whereby [13]:
J= T =
pRt p(Rm + Re + Rf)
where DPT is transmembrane pressure (kg m 1 s 2), p
is permeate viscosity (kg m 1 s 1), RT is total resistance (m 1), Rm is membrane resistance (m 1), Rc is
cake layer resistance, and Rf is internal fouling resistance (m 1). Resistance values in each case were calculated from flux data for (a) mains water (Rm); (b) the
backwashed membrane (Rf); and (c) the fouled membrane (Rc + Rf).
As shown in Table 2, the cake resistance (Rc) is
relatively small, and the internal fouling resistance (Rf)
greater than Rc. The Rc/RT ratio shows that only 8% of
the total resistance is attributed to the cake layer, and
the Rc/(Rc + Rf) ratio indicates that only 23% of resistance causing the flux decline results from the cake
layer. This is contrary to data reported for other studies
of membrane fouling in MBR processes where Rc is
always much greater than Rf [1315] such that more
vigorous aeration would be expected to produce a
noticeable improvement in flux by reducing the cake
layer resistance Rc.
Operation of the air-lift module over period of 37
days was conducted with and without backwashing and
air sparging (Fig. 5). For concurrent backwashing and
air sparging (a + b in Fig. 5), the flux exhibited a
steady state value (3032 lm 2 h 1). During the backwashing-only mode (b in Fig. 5), the flux decreased to
 22 lm 2 h 1, indicating a 30% decrease in flux due
to cessation of air injection. This compared with a
stable flux of 1720 lm 2 h 1 for air sparging-only
mode (a in Fig. 5), indicating that backwashing had a
slightly greater influence on flux than air sparging.
However, data refers to a somewhat short backwash
cycle of 30 min for such a submerged MBR configuration, exaggerating the backwash effects.

Table 2
A series of resistance values for the air-lift and air-jet module


Resistances (1011m1)

Cake resistance ratio (%)








Rc+Rf = 1.5

Rc+Rf =1.5




Thirty seven days of operation with and without backwashing.

Ten days operation without backwashing (clogging).
Thirteen days of operation with backwashing (no clogging); Rc and Rf can not be distinguished because membrane was torn after 13 days of

I.-S. Chang, S.J. Judd / Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915920

Fig. 5. Effect of backwashing and air-injection on flux performance

of the air-lift module (a) air only; (b) backwashing only; (a +b) air
and backwashing together.

Fig. 6. Effect of backwashing on flux performance for the air-jet


Fig. 7. Comparison of flux decline between air-jet and air-lift module.

As with other MBR studies, COD removal was high

( \ 93%) for all periods of operation, with the permeate
COD ranging from 4 to 20 mg l 1 for a feedwater
COD of 200 3000 mg l 1 of which around 22% was
soluble. As with other reported MBR studies [16], the
substantial variation in influent COD load had little
adverse effect on organic removal rates.

3.2. Air-jet module

The air-jet module was operated with and without
backwashing, and normalised flux data for this module
reveals backwashing to produce a stabilised flux of
around 70% of the initial flux after around 150 h (Fig.


6). This compares with a gradual decline to about 10%

of the original flux after 300 h for non-backwashed
operation. On investigating the membrane module, it
was apparent that, without backwashing, solids gradually accumulated in the lumens inside the membrane
module leading to terminal clogging. Clearly, in this
case the air-jet was insufficient to prevent accumulation
of solids. Doubling the air pressure (and thus the flow
rate) had no significant effect on the rate of solids
accumulation. The clogging phenomenon seems to be
inherent in the air-jet design (Fig. 2), whereas no such
clogging takes place for the air-lift process.
Comparison of flux data for the two operational
modes (Fig. 7), under non-backwashing conditions, reveals the relative flux (J/Jo) for the air-jet module to be
greater than that of the air-lift module for the first 100
h of operation. Whilst the flux for air-lift mode exhibited a steady state value that of the air-jet mode decreased continuously due to lumen clogging, indicating
that clogging inside air-jet module had been developing.
After 240 h of operation, the flux for the air-jet module
was less than half that of the air-lift module.
It is evident that the air-jet sparging can produce up
to 20% higher fluxes than the classical air-lift mode
provided clogging is absent. It is known that the pressure inside an air-jet membrane channel fluctuates with
response to the air-jet pulsation [17]. The pressure
variations inside the channel caused by air pulsation
appear to promote permeate flux; a periodic decrease in
pressure creates back-transport of permeate which
would then be expected to help to dislodge the cake
layer and lower the hydraulic resistance (Table 2),
especially when combined with the turbulent two-phase
flow regime. On the other hand, the exiting air slug
creates a negative pressure inside the lumen, which
enhances the sedimentation of solids into it and creating a clogging problem.

4. Conclusions
Two kinds of air sparging technology, the air-lift and
the air-jet, have been applied to enhance flux in a
submerged MBR. For the air-lift module, permeate flux
was found to increase by 43% when coarse bubble
aeration was employed. No further increase in flux was
observed as the gas flow was increased by up to a factor
of 10. This was attributed to the relatively small contribution of the cake layer resistance (Rc) to the overall
resistance causing flux decline (Rc + Rf). The air-jet
module suffered from clogging due to the gradual accumulation of biosolids inside the lumen over the operational period. However, provided clogging could be
prevented the flux was greater than that attained in the
air-lift module under otherwise comparable operating
conditions. Further work is needed to optimise design,


I.-S. Chang, S.J. Judd / Process Biochemistry 37 (2002) 915920

and start up and operating conditions to ameliorate

clogging problems encountered with air-jet module.

This work was supported by through a grant provided by KOSEF and sponsorship by Millenniumpore
Ltd, whose assistance the authors gratefully

[1] Stephenson T, Judd S, Jefferson B, Brindle K. Membrane Bioreactor for Wastewater Treatment. London: IWA Publishing,
[2] Bouhabila EH, Ben-Aim R, Buisson H. Microfiltration of activated sludge using submerged membrane with air bubbling.
Desalination 1998;118:315 22.
[3] Gunder B, Krauth K. Replacement of secondary clarification by
membrane separation-results with plate and hollow fibre modules. Water Sci Technol 1998;38:383 93.
[4] Ueda T, Hata K, Kikuoka Y, Seino O. Effects of aeration on
suction pressure in a submerged membrane bioreactor. Water
Res 1997;31:489 94.
[5] Cabassaud C, Laborie S, Laine JM. How slug flow can improve
ultrafiltration flux in organic hollow fibers. J Membr Sci
1997;128:93 101.
[6] Ghosh R, Cui ZF. Mass transfer in gas-sparged ultrafiltration:
upward slug flow in tubular membranes. J Membr Sci
1999;162:91 102.

[7] Vera L, Delgado S, Elmaleh S. Gas sparged cross flow microfiltration of biologically treated wastewater, in: Proceedings
of the Membrane Technology in Environmental Management.
IAWQ, Tokyo, 1999. pp. 131 38.
[8] Chang I-S, Bag S-O, Lee C-H. Effects of membrane fouling on
solute rejection during membrane filtration of activated sludge.
Process Biochem 2001;36:855 60.
[9] Standard Methods for the examination of water and wastewater,
18th edition. APHA, AWWA, WEF. Washington DC, 1992.
[10] Cabassaud C, Laborie S, Durand-Bourlier L, Laine JM. Air
sparging in ultrafiltration hollow fiber: relationship between flux
enhancement, cake characteristics and hydrodynamic parameters. J Membr Sci 2001;181:57 69.
[11] Marcier M, Fonade C, Lafforgue-Delorme C. How slug flow can
enhance the ultrafiltration flux in mineral tubular membranes. J
Membr Sci 1997;128:103 13.
[12] Vera L, Villarroel R, Delgado S, Elmaleh S. Enhancing microfiltration through an inorganic tubular membrane by gas
sparging. J Membr Sci 2000;165:47 57.
[13] Chang I-S, Lee C-H. Membrane filtration characteristics in
membrane-coupled activated sludge system the effect of physiological states of activated sludge on membrane fouling. Desalination 1998;120:221 33.
[14] Chang I-S, Gander M, Jefferson B, Judd SJ. Low-cost membranes for use in a submerged MBR. Trans IChemE (Part B)
2001;79:183 8.
[15] Kim J-S, Lee C-H, Chang I-S. Effect of pump shear on the
performance of a crossflow membrane bioreactor. Water Res
2001;35:2137 44.
[16] Davies WJ, Le MS, Heath CR. Intensified activated sludge
process with submerged membrane microfiltration. Water Sci
Technol 1998;38(4 5):421 8.
[17] Maranges C, Fonade C. Flux enhancement in crossflow filtration
using an unsteady jet. J Membr Sci 1997;123:1 8.