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Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615

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Upgrading small wastewater treatment plants with the sequencing

batch biofilter granular reactor technology: Techno-economic and
environmental assessment
Claudio Di Iaconi a, *, Guido Del Moro a, Giorgio Bertanza b, Matteo Canato b,
Giuseppe Laera a, Sara Heimersson c, Magdalena Svanstro €m c
CNR e National Research Institute, Viale De Blasio 5, 70132, Bari, Italy
University of Brescia, Department of Civil, Environmental, Architectural Engineering and Mathematics, Via Branze 43, 25123, Brescia, Italy
Chalmers University of Technology, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, SE 412 96, Go €teborg, Sweden

a r t i c l ein fo abstract

Article history: This paper is aimed at evaluating, from a techno-economic and environmental point of view, the per-
Received 16 September 2016 formance of an existing wastewater treatment plant in which the traditional biological section is
Received in revised form upgraded with an innovative Sequencing Batch Biofilter Granular Reactor. Two scenarios were simulated
23 January 2017 in order to model and assess the performances of conventional (CAS, Conventional Activated Sludge) and
Accepted 5 February 2017
innovative solutions, based on mass balances, techno-economic evaluation and environmental assess-
Available online 6 February 2017
ment. The results showed that converting the activated sludge process into an SBBGR allows to achieve a
drastic reduction in sludge production (up to 75% as volatile suspended solids). Furthermore, the sec -
ondary sedimentation and sludge stabilization units can be dismissed, reducing the area requirement (up
Granular sludge
to 50%). The technical assessment is mainly positive, with the electric energy consumption being the only
Techno-economic assessment critical item. The higher energy demand of the upgraded plant (about 25% more than the conventional
Environmental impacts treatment) is mainly associated with the recycle flow in the SBBGR system. Although the economic
Plant upgrading sustainability of the upgraded plant depends on local conditions, it can be considered to be likely
Sludge minimization favourable: sludge disposal and materials & reagents costs, together with the investment for plant
reconstruction are those items that should be carefully evaluated before upgrading the CAS plant with
SBBGR technology. The environmental assessment shows also mostly positive results, although it points
to the increased phosphorus concentration in the effluent as a potentially critical issue and it highlights
the electricity use and the increased nitrous oxide generation as other matters that need to be carefully
checked in real case application.
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction wastewater treatment plant (Horan, 1990; Wei et al., 2003; Pérez-
Elvira et al., 2006; Ozdemir and Yenigun, 2013).
The management of sludge produced during municipal waste- Sludge amounts have dramatically increased worldwide over
water treatment is an issue of increasing importance. Although the the last two decades. In Europe (EU-15), an increase of about 50%
volume of sludge produced is only about 2% of the treated waste- was observed from 1998 to 2005, reaching an annual production of
water volume, its treatment and final disposal entails very high 9.8 million tons dry solids (Foladori et al., 2010). Including also the
capital and operating costs to 50% of the total operating costs of the contribution from EU-12 countries (i.e., the new Members States
that joined EU after 2004) a global value close to 11 million tons dry
solids can be obtained (Kelessidis and Stasinakis, 2012). These fig-
* Corresponding author.
ures are expected to increase further, as a result of both more
E-mail addresses: (C. Di Iaconi), guido.delmoro@ stringent effluent regulation and a growing number of wastewater (G. Del Moro), (G. Bertanza), matteo. treatment plants. In response to this increased sludge production (M. Canato), (G. Laera), sara. and to concerns related to efficient management of resources, (S. Heimersson), (M.
various approaches are often considered for plants upgrading and
Svanstro€ m).
0959-6526/© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615 607

refurbishment for recovery of material and energy from sludge, primary and secondary treatment) and a significant reduction of
including sludge quality control to allow for agricultural use (Wang sludge production was obtained (Di Iaconi et al., 2010a).
et al., 2008). However, these options are usually not feasible or The SBBGR technology has been successfully applied for treating
convenient in case of small treatment plants (due to low sludge various types of wastewater (municipal wastewater, landfill
quality and/or amount) or high industrial contributions (resulting leachates, tannery and textile effluents). In particular, in the case of
in poor sludge quality). In these cases, reducing the excess sludge primary municipal effluents, the SBBGR removed 80% of chemical
production appears to be the only possible way to minimize oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS) and nitrogen
treatment, transport and disposal costs. content, ensuring residual concentrations lower than the Italian
In the last decade, a new biological system, the Sequencing limits for discharge into soil. These performances were assured up
Batch Biofilter Granular Reactor (SBBGR), has been developed and to organic loading rate (OLR) as high as 2.5 kg COD/m 3d (Di Iaconi
tested for municipal and industrial wastewater treatment. This et al., 2010a). In the treatment of scarcely biodegradable tannery
system is able to significantly reduce the quantity of sludge in wastewater, with biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) to COD ratios
comparison with the biological stage of a conventional wastewater of 0.41e0.43, removal efficiencies of 91%, 90% and 78% were ob-
treatment plant (Di Iaconi et al., 2010a). SBBGR consists of a single tained for COD, TSS and ammonia, respectively, when operating the
basin operated in cycles of wastewater feeding, treatment and SBBGR at OLR of 2.1 kg COD/m3d (Di Iaconi et al., 2010b). Also in the
discharge. It combines the advantages of attached biomass systems case of mature municipal landfill leachates characterized by high
(i.e., robustness and compactness) with those of periodic systems values of ammonia concentration (1.5e2 gN/L) and salinity
(i.e., flexibility and stability) (Rodgers and Zhan, 2003; Bajaj et al., (16e22 mS/cm), the SBBGR technology was able to produce an
2008; Farhadian et al., 2008). Similarly to these systems, SBBGR effluent with concentrations of ammonia and oxidised nitrogen as
presents a higher potential for use than suspended growth biomass low as 10 and 20 mg/L, respectively (Di Iaconi et al., 2011). Finally,
reactors since it can retain a higher concentration of biomass with during the treatment of mixed municipal and textile wastewater,
higher metabolic activity. Moreover, the attached biomass is usu- the SBBGR reached removal efficiencies of 82%, 95%, 88% and 77%
ally found to be more resistant to toxicity (Pedersen and Arvin, for COD, TSS, total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) and surfactants,
1995), and so better suited for the treatment of industrial efflu- respectively, allowing to meet the Italian limits for discharge into
ents. SBBGR is, however, a unique system in virtue of the particular surface water with no need of further tertiary treatment and with
type of biomass growing in it, which consists of two different much lower hydraulic residence time (11 h against 30 h) than in the
fractions: the biofilm attached to the carrier material and the centralized plant treating the same wastewater (Lotito et al., 2014).
biomass granules entrapped in the pores produced by packing a For all wastewater types, SBBGR was characterized by a low specific
part of the reactor with a filling material (Di Iaconi et al., 2010a). It is sludge production (0.12e0.14 kgTSS/kgCODremoved) due to the high
worth noting that in SBBGR, the granules are retained by the filling biomass age of SBBGR system (higher than 200 d).
material rather than being suspended as in recently proposed So far, the applicability and sustainability of SBBGR at full scale
granular biomass sequencing batch reactors (Gao et al., 2011; Pronk have not been demonstrated. Therefore, the aim of this study was
et al., 2015). The whole biomass (i.e., biofilm and granules) is to simulate the application of this technology for the upgrading of a
completely confined in a dedicated zone of the reactor known as conventional activated sludge (CAS) treatment plant, equipped
the bed (or biofilter), and a secondary settler is therefore no longer with aerobic sludge stabilization and having a treatment capacity of
necessary. This feature gives a great advantage in terms of oper- 15,000 person equivalents (PE). The two configurations were
ating stability compared to granular biomass sequencing batch compared based on the results of mass and energy balances and a
reactors, where selection of granular biomass and washing out of techno-economic and environmental assessment of full-scale de-
floccular biomass are obtained by applying a very short sedimen- signs. Plant-wide mass and energy balances were performed on
tation phase (Qin et al., 2004). Such a hydraulic selective pressure the basis of literature data (for CAS) and experimental results
may also lead to the washout of the granular biomass from the deriving from a pilot plant monitoring campaign (for SBBGR). The
reactor when slight modifications of the granule structure and results of these balances were used for a techno-economic and
density occur (e.g., in the case of filamentous bacteria growth). In environmental assessment of the conventional and upgraded
fact, the long-term instability of granular biomass is one of the configurations.
major bottlenecks that have prevented the practical full scale
application of the innovative aerobic granular sludge technology 2. Materials and methods
(Lee et al., 2010). This drawback cannot occur in a SBBGR system
since there is no sedimentation phase as the biomass is entrapped 2.1. Pilot experiments
in the filling material. This efficient biomass retention allows to
achieve very high sludge age in SBBGRs (up to one order of The effectiveness of the proposed upgrading scheme was eval-
magnitude higher than in conventional suspended growth sys- uated by experiments on a demonstrative scale SBBGR prototype (a
tems), with consequent reduction of sludge production (Di Iaconi pilot plant having a volume of 300 L). A detailed description of the
et al., 2009). In fact, the microorganisms spend much time in the prototype configuration and operation is reported elsewhere (Di
endogenous metabolism phase, where the contribution of biomass Iaconi et al., 2014). The main feature of the prototype was the
decay rate on biomass growth rate becomes relevant (Di Iaconi complete separation of the biomass from the liquid phase. While
et al., 2010a). Moreover, due to both high biomass concentration the biomass was confined to a dedicated compartment of the
and dynamic conditions arising from the sequential operation, the reactor (biofilter) packed with plastic material (wheel shaped ele-
SBBGR biomass is exposed to the alternation of aerobic and ments), the wastewater was circulated between an aeration
anaerobic conditions that activates an uncoupled metabolism (Liu, compartment with continuous air supply and the biofilter where
2003). Thus, dissipating catabolically extracted energy limits the biological degradation processes occurred. By this way, the
anabolism and results in a reduced biomass yield (Low et al., 2000), treated wastewater was always free of biomass and could be easily
as observed in other systems with alternating exposure to oxic and disposed of. A sketch of SBBGR is shown in Fig. 1.
anaerobic environments (Wei et al., 2003). This has been clearly The operation of the prototype was based on a succession of 6-h
demonstrated for SBBGR, when this replaced the activated sludge treatment cycles, each consisting of three consecutive phases:
stage of a conventional wastewater treatment plant (based on filling, reaction and drawing. During the filling phase a fixed
608 C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615

volume of wastewater to be treated was added into the aerator by Table 1

means of a filling pump. In the reaction phase, wastewater in the Effluent characteristics to be met by the plant (design
assumptions); for non-sensitive areas (thus no limita-
aerator was continuously recycled through the biomass supporting tions on phosphorus release).
material of the biofilter. Finally, in the drawing phase, the treated
Parameter Value (mg/L)
wastewater was discharged from aerator compartment exploiting
gravity by opening a motorized valve. The plant was then ready to COD 50
start a new treatment cycle. The operative schedule (filling, recir- BOD5 25
TSS 20
culation, aeration, drawing) was completely automated, using a
TN 18
programmable logic controller (PLC) which allowed the operating NH3 eN 2
times of the components (i.e., filling pump, recirculation pump, NO—3 N 14
blower, drawing valve) to be changed.
A pressure meter was set at the bottom of the biofilter
compartment and used to record the head losses due to biomass COD, BOD5, TN, NO3eN, and total phosphorus (TP) were deter-
growth and suspended solids retained from the influent waste- mined by means of Dr Lange test kits (COD: LCK314; BOD5: LCK555;
water. When a set value of head loss was reached, a washing TN: LCK238; NeNO2: LCK341; NeNO3: LCK339; TP: LCK350).
operation was carried out by flushing air through the biofilter until NH3eN and TSS were determined using standard methods (APHA
the head loss was decreased to a certain value. It must be high- et al., 2005). TKN was calculated as the difference between TN
lighted that washing operations played the same role as the waste and oxidised nitrogen.
sludge flow rate in CAS systems, i.e., to regulate sludge age, which is
the key parameter in the process operation. In fact, the sludge could
leave the SBBGR system either with the effluent (i.e., as suspended 2.2. Simulated scenarios
solids) similarly to activated sludge systems, or as a result of a
washing operation (i.e., “forced exit”). A CAS plant with a nominal capacity of 15,000 PE was consid-
The SBBGR pilot plant was fed with raw municipal wastewater ered as a reference scenario. The plant layout included screening,
coming from the local sewage system of Bari, a city of southern biological section (anoxic and aerobic bioreactors), gravity thick-
Italy, and operated for about two years. After a start-up period ening of the waste activated sludge, followed by aerobic digestion
(seven months) aimed at generating the typical biomass of the and sludge dewatering (centrifuge). The effluent was considered to
SBBGR system by the gradual shift of the attached biomass fraction be discharged in a non-sensitive area, with design parameters as
from the biofilm to granules (a detailed description of biomass reported in Table 1 (in non-sensitive areas, there are no limitations
generation in SBBGR is reported in Di Iaconi et al., 2014), the for phosphorus release).
experimental activities were set up to maximize the wastewater In this scenario, it was assumed that the treatment plant pro-
treatment capacity of the plant. In order to do this, the hydraulic duced sludge that was not suitable for agricultural application and
loading to the plant was increased in a stepwise fashion until the had to be disposed of by incineration. Therefore, it was hypothe-
effluent quality no longer met the requirements specified in Table 1. sized that upgrading the reference plant with a SBBGR would be a
The performance of the plant under maximum hydraulic loading convenient option for minimizing the sludge production and
for achieving the effluent quality standards was monitored for reducing the cost of disposal via incineration. In detail, the upgra-
about six months, and assessed in terms of removal of the main ded plant consisted of screening, SBBGR, sludge thickening, (no
physical and chemical gross parameters such as chemical oxygen stabilization) and dewatering. A rough schematic of the reference
demand (COD), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD 5), total sus- and upgraded plants is reported in Fig. 2.
pended solids (TSS), total nitrogen (TN), total Kjeldahl nitrogen
(TKN), ammonia nitrogen (NH3eN) and nitrate nitrogen (NO—3 -N). 2.3. Mass and energy balances calculation
The excess sludge production and its stabilization degree were also
evaluated. For both plants (reference and SBBGR), mass and energy

Fig. 1. Sketch of the pilot SBBGR prototype.

C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615 609

balances were calculated based on the assumptions and procedures plant, seven technical aspects were considered (i.e. reliability,
described in Bertanza et al. (2015) and Mininni et al. (2015). complexity and integration with existing structures, flexibility/
In brief, plant-wide mass balances were performed in a modularity, social & authorization aspects, residues & recovered
spreadsheet, modelling the flows of water, TSS, VSS, COD (soluble materials, consumption of raw materials & reagents, electric energy
and particulate) and TN (soluble and particulate) and the exchanges consumption). For the economic assessment, seven economic items
between water and sludge lines. All considered processes were were analysed (i.e. capital cost of upgrading/construction, ordinary
modelled under steady state conditions and annual average values maintenance, power consumption, reagent consumption, plant
of loading and temperature (15 ○C). The biological section of the monitoring, sludge transportation, and sludge disposal); other
reference plant was modelled with the support of the Activated costs (e.g. personnel) were not considered to change in the
Sludge Computer Aided Modelling (ASCAM) software (Carucci upgraded plant with respect to the reference one. The environ-
et al., 1994), while the performance data for the SBBGR unit were mental assessment, performed as a LCA, was based on six envi-
obtained from experimental trials. All other sections of the refer- ronmental impact categories (climate change; acidification;
ence and upgraded plants were modelled based on literature data. terrestrial, marine and freshwater eutrophication, and smog
Finally, the emissions to air and the distribution of phosphorus formation).
between effluent and sludge were calculated after iteratively It must be noted that there are differences in perspective be-
solving the mass balance for the parameters described above. tween the different parts of the integrated assessment apart from
The electric energy balance was performed by calculating the the obvious that they look into technical, economic and environ-
power consumption of each device installed in the plants (e.g. mental aspects, respectively. Firstly, the technical and economic
energy consumed by blowers for air supply in the biological stage, assessments evaluated only the changes induced by the upgrading
water lifting, mixing, etc.). The power consumption of different while the environmental assessment includes all impacts from
units was estimated for average loading conditions by means of wastewater treatment and sludge management from a life cycle
specific equations (either theoretical or empirical); for the SBBGR perspective, also the parts that are not changed when the reference
system, power consumption was estimated from a scaled-up plant is upgraded (attributional approach in LCA terms). Further,
design. Process parameters with their relative values assumed for the technical assessment was performed from the perspective of
SBBGR energy demand estimation are listed in Table S1 in Sup- the wastewater treatment plant manager, the economic assessment
plementary Materials. from the perspective of the wastewater treatment operating com-
pany and the environmental assessment from a global perspective
2.4. Techno-economic and environmental assessment (see Fig. 2 for the system boundaries of the environmental
assessment). With these different perspectives, the same conse-
The applied procedure for techno-economic and environmental quences of the considered upgrade can result in both positive and
assessment is described in Svanstro € m et al. (2014). The method- negative impacts for the different categories assessed (e.g. mate-
ology was inspired by methods developed in the Multi Criteria rials or energy recovery may have economic and environmental
Decision Analysis (MCDA) field for assessing complex problems. As advantages but will increase administrative burdens for the
reported in Achillas et al. (2013), complex problems are charac- wastewater treatment plant manager).
terized by incommensurable and conflicting criteria or objectives The economic assessment was performed by comparing the
(e.g. cost, performance, reliability, safety, productivity and afford- operating expenditures and the depreciation (only for new equip-
ability). Based on this definition, decision-making for systems ment) of the upgraded and reference plants: the comparison was
where suggested changes have technical, economic as well as expressed in terms of the difference (gap) between the costs of the
environmental consequences can be considered to be complex two plants. For taking into account of cost variability depending on
problems. market conditions, two opposite situations were simulated, namely
In order to evaluate the impact of the upgrading on an existing the most favourable and the worst conditions, respectively. In the

reference scenario

secondary sludge aerobic

Effluent water
treatment thickening stabilization

common for both scenarios

Wastewater pre-treatment dewatering transport incineration ash landfill

Effluent water SBBGR
electricity and heat chemicals
production production
upgraded scenario

Fig. 2. Schematic of the investigated scenarios and the system boundary for the environmental assessment.
610 C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615

first case, the assumed set of cost items was such that the upgrading Table 2
Inventory data for the life cycle assessment, apart from the results of mass and
option was favoured and vice versa. For instance, if the upgraded
energy balances performed within the project.
plant was expected to reduce sludge production while increasing
the power consumption, the operating costs under the most Assumptions for emissions from WWTP
N2 O 1% of denitrified N
favourable conditions were calculated using the upper limit of the
(Townsend-Small et al., 2011)
assumed range of variation of sludge disposal cost together with Assumptions for emissions
the lower limit of the assumed range of variation of electricity cost. to air from effluent recipient
The values of parameters utilized for the economic assessment CH4 0.025 kg per kg COD in
were taken from Bertanza et al. (2015) and are summarized in effluent (Foley et al., 2010)
Assumptions for incineration
Table S2 in Supplementary Materials.
NOx emissions to air 120.0 mg/Nm3 (IPPC, 2000;
The environmental assessment followed as far as possible in- BREF, 2006)
ternational LCA standards: ISO 14040:2006, ISO 14044:2006 and CO emissions to air 30.0 mg/Nm3 (IPPC, 2000;
the International Life Cycle Data Systems (ILCD) Handbook BREF, 2006)
HCl emissions to air 6.0 mg/Nm3 (BREF, 2006)
(European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2010). The environ-
SO2 emissions to air 30.0 mg/Nm3 (BREF, 2006)
mental impact categories were selected based on (1) relevance for Air flow rate 10.0 Nm3/kg SSinput (IPPC, 2000)
the studied systems, (2) categories assessed in similar LCA studies Fuel consumption for 0.134 Nm3 CH4/kg DS
reported in literature (e.g. Tarantini et al. (2007), Johansson et al. sludge at 25%DS
(2008), Peters and Rowley (2009)) and (3) availability of well- Conversion factor 2.44 kg CO2/kg CH4 in natural gas
Other assumptions
developed methodology and data. For more details, the reader is
Transport distance for sludge 100 km, truck with a payload
referred to Svanstro € m et al. (2014). of 30 tonnes
A colour code was eventually used to display the results of the Electricity production EU-27 mix (PE International, 2014)
different aspects of the integrated techno-economic-environ- Natural gas production EU-27 mix (PE International, 2014)
Polyelectrolyte production Acrylonitrile production
mental assessment, for highlighting potential problem areas and
(PE International, 2014)
trade-offs. As for the technical assessment, numerical values (e.g.
power consumption) and qualitative evaluations (e.g. reliability)
were converted into colours by means of an algorithm (as detailed
in Bertanza et al., 2015). For the economic and environmental also TSS were efficiently removed with residual concentration in
evaluations, colours were assigned on the basis of the ratio be- the effluent as low as 10 mg/L.
tween the results for the upgraded and the reference plants: red The excellent performance and high stability of the SBBGR in
was used when the ratio exceeded 10%; þ yellow, if the ratio fell removing TSS and COD could be ascribed to the fact that the
within the range ±10%; green, otherwise. biomass, being confined to a fixed filling material, acted as a
A full description of the techno-economic assessment procedure filtering medium for removing suspended particulate matter. In
is reported in Bertanza et al. (2015) and the full integrated approach effect, the particulate matter was firstly physically entrapped in the
with also the environmental assessment is reported in Svanstro €m reactor bed and then consecutively decomposed into soluble
et al. (2014). Inventory data for the LCA, other than the results compounds by the lytic enzymes produced by the biomass and
from the mass and energy balances, are listed in Table 2. finally mineralized or utilized for microbial growth.
Concerning nitrogen, the plant was able to remove more than
3. Results and discussion 95% of the TKN and NH 3eN influent content with residual final
concentrations very close to zero. Removal efficiencies of TN higher
3.1. Pilot experiments than 80% were also obtained with residual concentrations in the
effluent always lower than 15 mg/L. This was due to the presence of
As reported in section 2.1, the hydraulic loading applied to the a very stable nitrification and denitrification process (see the
plant was increased in a stepwise fashion until the effluent quality whiskers of standard deviation). Furthermore, the profiles of ni-
no longer met the requirements specified in Table 1. The technical trogen species recorded during a typical treatment cycle (data not
performance of the plant under the maximum hydraulic loading reported) supported the occurrence of a simultaneous nitrification-
denitrification process. In fact, the concentration of oxidised ni-
(i.e., 3.2 m3/m3biofilter,d corresponding to a hydraulic residence
time of the plant of 18 h) compatible with the achievement of the trogen remained very low throughout reaction phase despite the
requested effluent quality is shown in Figs. 3 and 4. In particular, recorded TKN removal. This ability of the system was ascribed to
Fig. 3 shows the average values (and relative standard deviations) the high value of biomass concentration present in the reactor bed,
of the COD, BOD5, TSS, TN, TKN and NH 3eN concentrations in the
influent and effluent of the pilot plant, whereas the relative
removal efficiencies are reported in Fig. 4.
The results reported in Figs. 3 and 4 clearly show that the pro-
posed system was able to guarantee good and stable technical
performance in a single step treatment. In fact, stable removal ef-
ficiencies exceeding 90% were achieved for COD, BOD 5, TSS, TKN
and NH3eN, reaching an effluent quality better than required.
Specifically, the plant successfully removed COD with an
average removal efficiency of 93%, the effluent residual concen-
tration being 40 mg/L. COD removal performances were very stable
regardless of the wide variation of influent COD concentration, as
confirmed by the length of the whiskers representing standard
deviation in Fig. 3. This allowed the discharge limit for COD to be
continuously met (COD concentration in the effluent never excee- Fig. 3. Average concentrations in influent and effluent of the SBBGR pilot plant (the
ded the value of 50 mg/L). Similarly to COD, Figs. 3 and 4 show that whiskers indicate the standard deviation).
C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615 611

properties, dewaterability and rheology of the sludge produced by

SBBGR treating mixed municipal and textile wastewater. Better
dewatering characteristics of granular biomass compared to acti-
vated sludge were also reported by Ekama (2015) and Ma et al.
The phosphorus balance in the SBBGR evidences how its
removal with the sludge was limited and hence most of the influent
P (>90%) was discharged with the effluent. The scenario considered
in this study had no imposed limits for P discharge as a non-
sensitive area was considered and therefore, this increased
release is not an issue in terms of legal requirements. However, in
different applications of the SBBGR technology, this aspect should
be further considered (see further the discussion on environmental
Fig. 4. Average removal efficiencies of the SBBGR pilot plant (the whiskers indicate the
impacts related to phosphorus below).
standard deviation).
Results of the electric energy balance are reported in Fig. 7.
Notwithstanding the aerobic stabilization stage was removed in the
which allowed the cohabitation of nitrifying and denitrifying bac- upgraded plant (with a corresponding power saving of 11.58 Wh/
teria in the biomass layers as reported in De Sanctis et al. (2010) and (PE,d)), the upgrading of the existing biological section to an
also previously demonstrated in suspended biomass systems SBBGR system implies an increase in energy requirement of about
24 Wh/(PE,d). This increase was mainly due to the internal recycle
(Bertanza, 1997; Collivignarelli and Bertanza, 1999). flow rate of wastewater typical of SBBGR (about 45 Wh/(PE,d)) that
Specific sludge production, calculated by dividing TSS leaving was embedded in the item “pumping” in Fig. 7.
the system (i.e., TSS discharged with the effluentþ TSS removed
during the washing operations) by the amount of COD removed 3.3. Integrated techno-economic-environmental assessment
during a period of 6 months, was 0.08 kg VSS/kg COD removed. This
value is considerably lower (60%e80% lower) than that reported in Results of the techno-economic-environmental assessment are
the literature for municipal wastewater treatment plants operating summarized in Table 3. It should be noted that the comparison had
without a primary clarifier (Foladori et al., 2010). An acceptable the purpose (in particular for the technical and economic parts) of
level of stabilization of excess sludge was also obtained (a VSS/TSS evaluating the impact of the upgrading (i.e., reference CAS upgra-
ratio of about 0.53 was measured) so that a further stabilization ded with the SBBGR system) instead of the realisation ex novo of
process might no longer be required. This result is particularly both plants. Actually, the upgrading was a conversion of the
interesting for small wastewater treatment plants where the sludge existing biological section into an SBBGR since the volume of the
stabilization section is not available and the excess sludge from the activated sludge reactor of the reference CAS resulted to be very
biological tank is directly sent to reuse/disposal or is transported to close to that required for SBBGR. Secondary settling and sludge
larger treatment plants or centralized sludge treatment facilities. stabilization units were no longer required for the plant upgraded
with SBBGR, and a reduction of the total area requirement of about
50% is therefore obtained.
3.2. Mass and energy balances From a technical point of view, the evaluation is quite positive
and only “Electric Energy consumption” was marked with yellow
The results of the mass balances for the reference and upgraded colour, to underline that it can represent a “potentially critical” item.
scenarios are reported in Figs. 5 and 6, respectively. Comparing the In effect, from the viewpoint of practitioners, this item was evalu-
performance of the two plants, it is evident that the SBBGR was ated as potentially critical because the power consumption of the
highly effective in reducing the amount of waste sludge: the excess SBBGR unit was more than 20% higher than that of the reference
biomass produced in the biological process decreases from 68 g SS/ plant (but lower than 100%, representing the threshold over which
PE/d in the reference scenario to 16 g SS/PE/d in the upgraded plant. red colour would have been attributed). One of the most important
Excess sludge produced during the SBBGR process, had accept- able advantages of upgrading with the SBBGR technology was found to
stabilization (see section 3.1) and therefore the aerobic stabi- be the simplicity of the system and the operators of small waste-
lization stage was not required. Hence, in terms of dewatered water treatment plants can particularly appreciate this technical
sludge, the introduction of the SBBGR technology resulted in a aspect.
reduction of up to 70% of the solid residue produced in the refer- Looking at the technical assessment in more details, it appears
ence scenario (i.e. 5.2 kg/PE/year instead of 17.4 kg/PE/year in the that two subcategories have to be considered with care in case of
conventional treatment). The reduction rate increased to 75% when upgrading an existing plant, even if the overall evaluation for
volatile fractions were considered, due to better stabilization ob- ‘Reliability’ and ‘Complexity and integration with existing struc-
tained with the SBBGR in comparison to biological treatment and tures’ resulted in a green score. Under ‘Reliability’, the ‘Number of
aerobic stabilization of reference scenario (a VSS/TSS ratio of 0.53 full-scale application in EU’ was considered “critical” (and a red score
versus 0.65 in the reference case). was attributed) mainly because the SBBGR system is not applied at
Additionally, the volume of dewatered sludge was further the full-scale. Despite this critical aspect, the overall score for
reduced thanks to the improvement in sludge dewaterability of the ‘Reliability’ was green because the technology demonstrated very
SBBGR system evaluated by capillary suction time (CST) test (UNI stable performances under typical working conditions and influent
EN 14701-1), which allowed to reduce the dosage of poly- variability (see Table S3 in Supplementary Materials for more de-
electrolyte and increased the dewatered sludge concentration up to tails). Similarly, despite the ‘Intervention required for integrating the
28% of dry matter after thickening and dewatering with centrifuge technology in the existing WWTP’ received a red score, the overall
(compared to 20% for reference scenario). This improvement is evaluation of ‘Complexity and Integration … ’ was green because no
important when considering the cost and environmental impact of additional land, personnel training and safety standards were
transport to the site for final disposal. This result is in agreement required as a consequence of the upgrade (Table S3). In the specific
with the findings of Lotito et al. (2012) who measured settling
612 C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615

Fig. 5. Mass balance of the reference scenario.

case of the ‘Intervention required for integrating the technology in the reduction of the costs (—38%) with respect to the reference plant.
existing WWTP’, it must be underlined that the SBBGR system Also, if the worst conditions should prevail, the increase in costs
received a “negative” evaluation because this study considered the should not be very high (þ8.6% with respect to the reference plant).
upgrading of an existing WWTP (so the hydraulic and electric Therefore, a yellow score was attributed (see Table 3). In detail,
connections have to be modify for adapting a CAS plant to a SBBGR). analysing the results of the economic sensitivity analysis reported
In case of a new realisation, the plant engineering could be simpler in Fig. 8 (where costs are expressed as V/(PE,y)), it can be seen that
the advantages of the SBBGR technology were mainly attributable
than in building a new CAS system, therefore resulting in a positive
to two items: sludge disposal cost and materials & reagents cost
(polyelectrolyte in particular). On the contrary, capital expenditures
From Table 3 it can be deduced that the economic sustainability
represented the most relevant contribution to the cost increase.
of the upgrading depends on the local conditions but it is likely to
Therefore, these items have to be carefully taken into account in
be satisfied: under the most favourable conditions (green colour
case the applicability of the SBBGR system for full-scale realisation
was attributed) the SBBGR system should allow a substantial

Fig. 6. Mass balance of the upgraded scenario.

C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615 613

Fig. 7. Details of the different items of the electric energy consumption in reference
and upgraded wastewater treatment plants.

Fig. 8. Detailed results of the economic evaluation: cost differences (gaps) between
is being evaluated. The present work was not carried out on a real upgraded and reference plants. Cost variability due to market conditions are shown by
the bars width.
plant and therefore the cost estimation could be affected by some
uncertainties, in particular in estimating the capital cost for con-
verting the existing activated sludge basin into an SBBGR system higher in the reference system due to larger incinerated sludge
(e.g. subdivision of the existing biological reactor chamber into amounts or to the lower consumption of chemicals. The higher
some SBBGR units to ensure continuous treatment; realisation of electricity consumption in the upgraded plant was thus compen-
the biomass filling material housing in each SBBGR unit; realisation sated for by reduced emissions from incineration and chemicals
of the wastewater distribution system; automation of the process, consumption for those impact categories. The climate impact was
etc.). influenced by an expected increase in N 2O emissions to air after the
The environmental assessment indicated one challenge in plant upgrade. Marine eutrophication was considerably lower in
particular, as can be seen from the summary in Table 3. The effluent the upgraded system due to reduced nitrogen content in the
from the upgraded plant was found to contain more phosphorus, effluent.
which influences strongly the freshwater eutrophication potential. Two assumptions that impacted the results are related to the
Freshwater ecosystems are normally sensitive to phosphate emis- electricity system and to the effluent recipient. The consumed
sions because in such ecosystems phosphorus is often a growth- electricity was considered to be generated as for the average in EU-
limiting nutrient; the results will thus depend on whether fresh- 27, which is 28% nuclear, 21% natural gas, 15% hard coal, 11% lignite
water ecosystems or marine ecosystems are considered to be the and 10% hydro and so forth. The importance of the electricity use
recipient of the effluent. This is seen also from the more detailed could both increase and decrease if another energy system would
LCA results that are shown in Fig. 9. Impacts related to sludge be more reasonable to use in the calculation based on the local
transportation and disposal and chemicals decreased whereas conditions. As an example, if average Swedish electricity was
impacts related to electrical energy consumption, phosphorus in assumed, with mostly nuclear and hydropower, this would lower
the effluent and N2O to air increased when upgrading a CAS to the impact from the upgraded system, and for all impact categories
SBBGR. Some environmental impact categories, in particular acid- with a large contribution from the electricity, the upgrade would
ification, terrestrial eutrophication and smog formation, showed appear even more advantageous than it already is. The opposite
better results for the upgraded plant, mainly due to their strong would happen if, for example, only coal power was considered (e.g.
correlation to either emissions to air from incineration which were as to represent peak load electricity generation). In terms of the

Table 3
Summary of technical, economic and environmental assessments. The colour code describes the overall impact of the upgrade on the WWTP: Green for minimum or negligible
impact; Yellow for moderate impact; Red for potentially crucial aspect (see text for more details).

Type of aspect Aspect Score *

Reliability GREEN
Complexity and integration with existing structures GREEN
Flexibility / Modularity GREEN
Technical Social & Authorization aspects GREEN
Residues & Recovered materials GREEN
Consumption of Raw Materials & Reagents GREEN
Electric Energy consumption YELLOW
Cost variation under the most favourable conditions GREEN
Cost variation under the worst conditions YELLOW

Global warming potential, GWP GREEN

Acidification potential, AP GREEN
Eutrophication potential, EP, for freshwater ecosystems RED
Eutrophication potential, EP, for marine ecosystems GREEN
Eutrophication potential, EP, for terrestrial ecosystems GREEN

Photochemical oxidant formation potential, POFP GREEN

* Specific evaluations are required because the final judgment depends on site-specific conditions
614 C. Di Iaconi et al. / Journal of Cleaner Production 148 (2017) 606e615

The technical assessment of the upgrade was mainly positive

and only electric energy consumption was found to be quite a
critical item for the SBBGR. This high energy demand of the SBBGR
system (about 24 Wh/(PE,d) more than the CAS plant) was mainly
due to the wastewater recycle flow rate required by the system
(accounting for about 45 Wh/(PE,d)). Also the economic assess-
ment was mainly positive even if the economic sustainability of the
upgrading depends on local conditions. Those items that had the
greater impact on the overall cost and that therefore must be
evaluated with particular accuracy in a possible real situation are:
depreciation cost for plant reconstruction (responsible for cost in-
crease) and sludge disposal & reagent costs (which instead were
the main key points for cost reduction). In terms of the environ-
mental assessment, the major issue identified was the increased
content of phosphorus in the effluent of the upgraded plant, which
can cause problems when released into some environments (e.g.
Fig. 9. Detailed results of the LCA (WWTP ¼ wastewater treatment plant).
lakes, reservoirs with low water exchange). Other issues of poten-
tial environmental concern in the upgrade are were electricity use
effluent recipient, the current LCA modelling is made with a for the SBBGR and N2O emissions to air from the WWTP. All of these
freshwater ecosystem as the recipient. If the effluent would be areas should be checked and minimized in case of real application
considered to be sent directly into a marine environment where of the SBBGR technology.
phosphorus is not growth-limiting, this could in fact better repre-
sent discharge into non-sensitive areas. Therefore, the modelling of Acknowledgment
the effects of the increased phosphorus discharge in this LCA can be
seen as a worst case and highlights the importance of looking into This work was supported by the project ROUTES, funded under
specific local conditions. the European Union’s Seventh Programme for research, techno-
The direct effect of sludge minimization and increased dew- logical development and demonstration (grant agreement No
aterability can be clearly seen in reduced impacts related to sludge 265156).
transport and disposal and use of chemicals, and the increase in
electricity use and N2O emissions seem to be acceptable trade-offs. Appendix A. Supplementary data
However, the increase in phosphorus in the effluent is a potential
concern in some areas. The environmental performance is thus Supplementary data related to this article can be found at http://
expected to be quite positive. Electricity use for the SBBGR, the
content of phosphorus in the wastewater treatment plant effluent
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