Anaerobic azo dye reduction

F.P. van der Zee

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


<font size="3"><p>Azo dyes, aromatic moieties linked together by azo (-N=N-) chromophores, represent the largest class of dyes used in textile-processing and other industries. The release of these compounds into the environment is undesirable, not only because of their colour, but also because many azo dyes and their breakdown products are toxic and/or mutagenic to life. To remove azo dyes from wastewater, a biological treatment strategy based on anaerobic reduction of the azo dyes, followed by aerobic transformation of the formed aromatic amines, holds promise. However, the first stage of the process, anaerobic azo dye reduction, proceeds relatively slow. Therefore, this thesis research aimed at optimising anaerobic azo dye reduction, by studying the reaction mechanism and by consequently applying the obtained insights.</p><p>In this thesis it is shown that non-adapted anaerobic granular sludge has the capacity to non-specifically reduce azo dyes. As there was no correlation between a dye's reduction rate and its molecular characteristics (i.e. its size and its number of sulphonate groups and other polar substituents), it is unlikely that the mechanism of azo dye reduction involves cell wall penetration. Moreover, the presence of bacteria is not a prerequisite: azo dyes can also be reduced by sulphide in a purely chemical reaction. As dye containing wastewater usually contains sulphate and other sulphur species that will be biologically reduced to sulphide during treatment in anaerobic bioreactors, azo dye reduction will be a combination of biotic and abiotic processes. However, it was demonstrated that under normal conditions in high-rate anaerobic bioreactors (high sludge content, moderate sulphide levels), chemical azo dye reduction by sulphide hardly contributes to the overall reaction. Anaerobic azo dye reduction is therefore mainly a biological process, either a direct enzymatically catalysed reaction involving non-specific enzymes or a reaction with enzymatically reduced electron carriers. Azo dye reduction by sludge that had not earlier been exposed to dyes was found to relate to the oxidation of endogenous substrate and, especially, to the oxidation of hydrogen when present in bulk concentrations. Enrichment was required for the utilisation of electrons from volatile fatty acids for dye reduction.</p><p>Examination of the reduction of twenty chemically distinct azo dyes by anaerobic granular sludge revealed a large variation in the reaction rates. Especially reactive azo dyes with triazyl reactive groups were slowly reduced. For these common occurring reactive dyes, long contact times may be necessary to reach a satisfying extent of decolourisation. Consequently, they pose a serious problem for applying high-rate anaerobic treatment as the first stage in the biological degradation of azo dyes. However, this problem can be overcome by using redox mediators, compounds that speed up the reaction rate by shuttling electrons from the biological oxidation of primary electron donors or from bulk electron donors to the electron-accepting azo dyes.</p><p>It was observed that one of the constituent aromatic amines of the azo dye Acid Orange 7 had an autocatalytic effect on the dye's reduction, probably by acting as a redox mediator. Other compounds, e.g. the artificial redox mediator anthraquinone-2,6-disulphonate (AQDS), a compound that is known to catalyse the reductive transfer of several pollutants, and the commonly occurring flavin enzyme cofactor riboflavin, were found to be extremely powerful catalysts, capable of raising the pseudo first-order reaction rate constants by orders of magnitude. Moreover, a large stimulatory effect was found for autoclaved sludge, presumably due to the release of internal electron carriers, e.g. enzyme cofactors like riboflavin, during autoclaving.</p><p>AQDS was successfully applied to improve the continuous reduction of Reactive Red 2 (a reactive azo dye with a triazyl reactive group) in a lab-scale anaerobic bioreactor that was operated under moderate hydraulic loading conditions. Without AQDS, the reactor's dye removal efficiency was very low, which gave rise to severe dye toxicity towards the biological activity. Addition of catalytic concentrations of AQDS to the reactor influent caused an immediate increase of the dye removal efficiency and recovery of the methane production. Eventually, almost complete RR2 colour removal could be reached.</p><p>Though effective AQDS dosage levels are low, continuous dosing has disadvantages with respect to the costs and the discharge of this biologically recalcitrant compound. Therefore, the feasibility of activated carbon (AC), which is known to contain quinone groups at its surface, to act alternatively as an insoluble/immobilised redox mediator was explored. Incorporation of AC in the sludge of lab-scale anaerobic bioreactors that treated Reactive Red 2 in synthetic wastewater containing volatile fatty acid as primary electron donor resulted in enhanced continuous dye reduction as compared to the control reactors without AC. The effect of AC was in large excess of its dye adsorption capacity. In addition, it was shown that bacteria could utilise AC as terminal electron acceptor in the oxidation of acetate. Moreover, AC catalysis of chemical azo dye reduction by sulphide was demonstrated. These results clearly suggest that AC accepts electrons from the microbial oxidation of organic acids and transfers the electrons to azo dyes, thereby accelerating their biological reduction.</p><p>The research presented in this thesis makes clear that the reduction of azo dyes can be optimised by utilising redox mediators, i.e. either by continuous dosing of soluble quinones or by incorporation of AC in the sludge blanket. The potential of using redox mediators is probably not limited to enhancing azo dye reduction but may be extrapolated to other non-specific reductive (bio)transformations, e.g. reduction of halogenated or nitroaromatic compounds. The potential of using redox mediators is furthermore probably not limited to wastewater treatment but may also apply to bioremediation of soils polluted with e.g. polychlorinated solvents or nitroaromatic pesticides.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Lettinga, G., Promotor, External person
  • Field, J.A., Promotor, External person
Award date21 May 2002
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789058086105
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • anaerobic treatment
  • azo compounds
  • dyes
  • redox reactions
  • anthraquinones

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