Anaerobic Reactors

Anaerobic Reactors

by Carlos Augusto de Lemos Chernicharo


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Anaerobic Reactorsis the forth volume in the series Biological Wastewater Treatment. The fundamentals of anaerobic treatment are presented in detail, including its applicability, microbiology, biochemistry and main reactor configurations. Two reactor types are analysed in more detail, namely anaerobic filters and especially UASB (upflow anaerobic sludge blanket) reactors. Particular attention is also devoted to the post-treatment of the effluents from the anaerobic reactors.

The book presents in a clear and informative way the main concepts, working principles, expected removal efficiencies, design criteria, design examples, construction aspects and operational guidelines for anaerobic reactors.

About the series: The seriesis based on ahighly acclaimedsetof best selling textbooks. This international version is comprised by six textbooks giving a state-of-the-art presentation of the science and technology of biological wastewater treatment. Other titles in the series are: Volume 1: Waste Stabilisation Ponds; Volume 2: Basic Principles of Wastewater Treatment; Volume 3: Waste Stabilization Ponds; Volume 5: Activated Sludge and Aerobic Biofilm Reactors; Volume 6: Sludge Treatment and Disposal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843391647
Publisher: IWA Publishing
Publication date: 01/05/2007
Series: Biological Wastewater Treatment Series , #4
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.75(d)

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Introduction to anaerobic treatment


As a result of expanded knowledge, anaerobic sewage treatment systems, especially upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) reactors, have grown in maturity, occupying an outstanding position in several tropical countries in view of their favourable temperature conditions. Their acceptance changed from a phase of disbelief, which lasted until the early 1980s, to the current phase of widespread acceptance.

However, this great acceptance has frequently led to the development of projects and the implementation of treatment plants with serious conceptual problems. In this sense, the following chapters aim at providing information related to the principles, design and operation of anaerobic sewage treatment systems, with emphasis on upflow anaerobic sludge blanket reactors and anaerobic filters.

In principle, all organic compounds can be degraded by an anaerobic process, which is more efficient and economic when the waste is easily biodegradable.

Anaerobic digesters have been largely used in the treatment of solid wastes, including agricultural wastes, animal excrements, sludge from sewage treatment plants and urban wastes, and it is estimated that millions of anaerobic digesters have been built all over the world with this purpose. Anaerobic digestion has also been largely used in the treatment of effluents from agricultural, food and beverage industries, both in developed and developing countries, as shown in Table 1.1.

Also concerning the treatment of domestic sewage in warm-climate regions, a substantial increment has been verified in the use of anaerobic technology, notably by means of the UASB-type reactors. Naturally, in this case, the application of anaerobic technology depends much more on the temperature of the sewage, due to the low activity of anaerobic microorganisms at temperatures below 20 ?C, and to the unfeasibility of heating the reactors. This is because domestic sewage is more diluted than industrial effluents, resulting in low volumetric production rates of methane gas, which makes its use as a source of heat energy uneconomical. Therefore, anaerobic treatment of domestic sewage becomes much more attractive for tropical- and subtropical-climate countries, which are mainly developing countries


Several favourable characteristics of anaerobic systems, likely to be operated under high solids retention times and very low hydraulic detention times, provide them with great potential for application to the treatment of low-concentration wastewaters. They are also simple, low-cost technologies, with some advantages regarding operation and maintenance, as illustrated in Table 1.2.

Figure 1.1 enables a clearer visualisation of some of the advantages of anaerobic digestion in relation to aerobic treatment, notably regarding the production of methane gas and the very low production of solids.

In aerobic systems, only about 40 to 50% of biological stabilisation occurs, with its consequent conversion into CO2. A very large incorporation of organic matter as microbial biomass (about 50 to 60%) is verified, constituting the excess sludge of the system. The organic material, not converted into carbon dioxide or into biomass, leaves the reactor as non-degraded material (5 to 10%).

In anaerobic systems, most of the biodegradable organic matter present in the waste is converted into biogas (about 70 to 90%), which is removed from the liquid phase and leaves the reactor in a gaseous form. Only a small portion of the organic material is converted into microbial biomass (about 5 to 15%), which then constitutes the excess sludge of the system. Besides the small amount produced, the excess sludge is usually more concentrated, with better dewatering characteristics. The material not converted into biogas or into biomass leaves the reactor as non-degraded material (10 to 30%).

Another interesting approach is made by Lettinga (1995), who emphasises the need for the implementation of integrated environmental protection systems that conciliate sewage treatment and the recovery and reuse of its by-products. The approach has a special appeal to developing countries, which present serious environmental problems, lack of resources and power and, frequently, insufficient food production. In this sense, anaerobic digestion becomes an excellent integrated alternative for sewage treatment and recovery of by-products, as illustrated in Figure 1.2.


Principles of anaerobic digestion


Inorganic electron acceptors, such as SO42- or CO2, are used in the oxidation process of organic matter under anaerobic conditions. Methane formation does not occur in mediums where oxygen, nitrate or sulfate is readily available as electron acceptors. Methane production occurs in different natural environments, such as swamps, soil, river sediments, lakes and seas, as well as in the digestive organs of ruminant animals, where the redox potential is around -300 mV. It is estimated that anaerobic digestion with methane formation is responsible for the complete mineralisation of 5 to 10% of all the organic matter available on the Earth.

Anaerobic digestion represents an accurately balanced ecological system,where different populations of microorganisms present specialised functions, and the breakdown of organic compounds is usually considered a two-stage process. In the first stage, a group of facultative and anaerobic bacteria converts (by hydrolysis and fermentation) the complex organic compounds (carbohydrates, proteins and lipids) into simpler organic materials, mainly volatile fatty acids (VFA), as well as carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases.

In the second stage, the organic acids and hydrogen are converted into methane and carbon dioxide. This conversion is performed by a special group of microorganisms, named methanogens, which are strictly anaerobic prokaryotes. The methanogenic archaea depend on the substrate provided by the acid-forming microorganisms, consisting, therefore, in a syntrophic interaction.

The methanogens carry out two primordial functions in the anaerobic ecosystems: they produce an insoluble gas (methane)which enables the removal of organic carbon from the environment, and they also keep the H2 partial pressure low-enough to allow conditions in the medium for fermenting and acid-producing bacteria to produce more oxidised soluble products, such as acetic acid. Once the methanogens occupy the terminal position in the anaerobic environment during organic compound degradation, their inherent low growth rates usually represent a limiting factor in the digestion process as a whole.


Anaerobic digestion can be considered an ecosystem where several groups of microorganisms work interactively in the conversion of complex organic matter into final products, such as methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, water and ammonia, besides new bacterial cells.

Although anaerobic digestion is generally considered a two-phase process, it can be subdivided into various metabolic pathways, with the participation of several microbial groups, each with a different physiological behaviour, as illustrated in Figure 2.1 and described in the following items.

(a) Hydrolysis and acidogenesis

Since the microorganisms are not capable of assimilating particulate organic matter, the first phase in the anaerobic digestion process consists in the hydrolysis of complex particulate material (polymers) into simpler dissolved materials (smaller molecules), which can penetrate through the cell membranes of the fermentative bacteria. Particulate materials are converted into dissolved materials by the action of exoenzymes excreted by the hydrolytic fermentative bacteria. The hydrolysis of polymers usually occurs slowly in anaerobic conditions, and several factors may affect the degree and rate at which the substrate is hydrolysed (Lettinga et al., 1996):

• operational temperature of the reactor

• residence time of the substrate in the reactor

• substrate composition (e.g. lignin, carbohydrate, protein and fat contents)

• size of particles

• pH of the medium

• concentration of NH4+-N

• concentration of products from hydrolysis (e.g. volatile fatty acids)

The soluble products from the hydrolysis phase are metabolised inside the cells of the fermentative bacteria and are converted into several simpler compounds, which are then excreted by the cells. The compounds produced include volatile fatty acids, alcohols, lactic acid, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, besides new bacterial cells.

Acidogenesis is carried out by a large and diverse group of fermentative bacteria. Usual species belong to the clostridia group, which comprises anaerobic species that form spores, able to survive in very adverse environments, and the family Bacteroidaceaea, organisms commonly found in digestive tracts, participating in the degradation of sugars and amino acids.

(b) Acetogenesis

Acetogenic bacteria are responsible for the oxidation of the products generated in the acidogenic phase into a substrate appropriate for the methanogenic microorganisms. In this way, acetogenic bacteria are part of an intermediate metabolic group that produces substrate for methanogenic microorganisms. The products generated by acetogenic bacteria are acetic acid, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

During the formation of acetic and propionic acids, a large amount of hydrogen is formed, causing the pH in the aqueous medium to decrease. However, there are two ways by which hydrogen is consumed in the medium: (i) through the methanogenic microorganisms, that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane; and (ii) through the formation of organic acids, such as propionic and butyric acids, which are formed through the reaction among hydrogen, carbon dioxide and acetic acid.

Among all the products metabolised by the acidogenic bacteria, only hydrogen and acetate can be directly used by the methanogenic microorganisms. However, at least 50% of the biodegradable COD are converted into propionic and butyric acids, which are later decomposed into acetic acid and hydrogen by the action of the acetogenic bacteria.

(c) Methanogenesis

The final phase in the overall anaerobic degradation process of organic compounds into methane and carbon dioxide is performed by the methanogenic archaea. They use only a limited number of substrates, comprising acetic acid, hydrogen/carbon dioxide, formic acid, methanol, methylamines and carbon monoxide. In view of their affinity for substrate and extent of methane production, methanogenic microorganisms are divided into two main groups, one that forms methane from acetic acid or methanol, and the other that produces methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide, as follows:

• acetate-using microorganisms (aceticlastic methanogens)

• hydrogen-using microorganisms (hydrogenotrophic methanogens)

Aceticlastic methanogens. Although only a few of the methanogenic species are capable of forming methane from acetate, these are usually the microorganisms prevailing in anaerobic digestion. They are responsible for about 60 to 70% of all the methane production, starting from the methyl group of the acetic acid. Two genera utilise acetate to produce methane: Methanosarcina prevails above 10-3 M acetate, while Methanosaeta prevails below this acetate level (Zinder, 1993). Methanosaeta may have lower yields and be more pH-sensitive, as compared to Methanosarcina (Schimidt and Ahring, 1996). Methanosarcina has a greater growth rate, while Methanosaeta needs a longer solids retention time, but can operate at lower acetate concentrations. The Methanosaeta genus is characterised by exclusive use of acetate, and having a higher affinity with it than the methanosarcinas. They are developed in the form of filaments, being largely important in the formation of the bacterial texture present in the granules. The organisms belonging to the Methanosarcina genus are developed in the formof coccus, which group together forming "packages". They are considered the most versatile among the methanogenic microorganisms, since they own species capable of using also hydrogen and methylamines (Soubes, 1994).

Hydrogenotrophic methanogens. Unlike the aceticlastic organisms, practically all the well-known methanogenic species are capable of producing methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The genera more frequently isolated in anaerobic reactors are Methanobacterium, Methanospirillum and Methanobrevibacter. Both the aceticlastic and the hydrogenotrophic methanogenic microorganisms are very important in the maintenance of the course of anaerobic digestion, since they are responsible for the essential function of consuming the hydrogen produced in the previous phases. Consequently, the partial pressure of hydrogen in the medium is lowered, thus enabling the production reactions of the acidogenic and acetogenic bacteria (see Section 2.3.3).

(d) Sulfate reduction

In reactors treating wastewater containing sulfate or sulfite, these compounds can be used by sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) as acceptors of electrons released during the oxidation of organic materials (Lettinga et al., 1996).

The metabolism of SRB is important in the anaerobic process, mostly because of their end product, hydrogen sulfide. SRB group species have in common the dissimilatory sulfate metabolism under strict anaerobiosis, and are considered a very versatile group of microorganisms, capable of using a wide range of substrate, including the whole chain of volatile fatty acids, several aromatic acids, hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, glycerol, sugars, amino acids and several phenol compounds.

Two major metabolic groups of SRB can be distinguished: (i) a group of species that is able to oxidise incompletely its substrates to acetate, like the genera Desulfobulbus sp. and Desulfomonas sp., and most of the species of the genera Desulfotomaculum and Desulfovibrio belong to this group; and (ii) a group which is able to oxidise its organic substrates, including acetate, to carbon dioxide. The genera Desulfobacter Desulfococcus, Desulfosarcina, Desulfobacterium and Desulfonema belong to this group.

In the absence of sulfate, the anaerobic digestion process occurs according to the metabolic sequences presented in Figure 2.1. With the presence of sulfate in the wastewater, many of the intermediate compounds formed by means of the metabolic routes identified in Figure 2.1 start to be used by the SRB, causing a change in the metabolic routes in the anaerobic digester (see Figure 2.2). Hence, the SRB start to compete with the fermentative, acetogenic and methanogenic microorganisms for the substrate available, resulting in a decrease in the production of methane from a given amount or organic material present in the influent. The importance of this bacterial competition is greater when the relative concentration of SO42- is increased in relation to the COD concentration (see Section 2.3.7).


2.3.1 Preliminaries

Anaerobic digestion of organic compounds comprises several types of methanogenic and acidogenic microorganisms, and the establishment of an ecological balance among the types and species of anaerobic microorganisms is of fundamental importance to the efficiency of the treatment system. The VFA parameter is frequently used for the evaluation of this ecological balance.

The volatile fatty acids are formed, as intermediate products, during the degradation of carbohydrates, proteins and lipids. The most important components resulting from the biochemical decomposition of the organic matter are the short-chain volatile acids, such as formic, acetic, propionic, butyric and, in smaller amounts, valeric and isovaleric acids. These low-molecular-weight fatty acids are named volatile acids because they can be distilled at atmospheric pressure. The volatile acids represent intermediate compounds, from which most of the methane is produced, through conversion by the methanogenic microorganisms.

When a population of methanogenic microorganisms is present in a sufficient amount, and the environmental conditions inside the treatment system are favourable, they use the intermediate acids as quickly as they are formed. Consequently, the acids do not accumulate beyond the neutralising capacity of the alkalinity naturally present in the medium, the pH remains in a range favourable for the methanogenic organisms and the anaerobic system is balanced. However, if the methanogenic organisms are not present in sufficient amount, or if they are exposed to unfavourable environmental conditions, they will not be capable of using the volatile acids at the same rate at which they are produced by the acidogenic bacteria, resulting in an accumulation of acids in the system. In these conditions, the alkalinity is quickly consumed, and the non-neutralised free acids cause the pH to drop. When that occurs the reactor is referred to by operators as 'sour' (because of its odour).


Excerpted from "Anaerobic Reactors Volume Four"
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Copyright © 2007 IWA Publishing.
Excerpted by permission of IWA Publishing.
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Table of Contents

Preface, vii,
The author, xi,
1 Introduction to anaerobic treatment, 1,
2 Principles of anaerobic digestion, 5,
3 Biomass in anaerobic systems, 39,
4 Anaerobic treatment systems, 51,
5 Design of anaerobic reactors, 70,
6 Operational control of anaerobic reactors, 116,
7 Post-treatment of effluents from anaerobic reactors, 147,
References, 169,

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