Anaerobic treatment of municipal wastewater in a UASB-Digester system: temperature effect on system performance, hydrolysis and methanogenesis

Lei Zhang

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


A novel treatment chain for low strength domestic sewage includes low temperature anaerobic treatment as the main process. It can improve the energy efficiency of sewage treatment compared with conventional aerobic sewage treatment. A combination of an Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket reactor and a sludge digester, a UASB-digester system, was proven to be one of the successful anaerobic systems to challenge temperatures as low as 10°C and organic matter concentrations in the range of 382 and 1054 mg chemical oxygen demand (COD)/l. The UASB is operated at low sewage temperature (10°C) and high loading rate. The produced non-stabilised sludge in the UASB is recirculated over the mesophilic digester (35°C) to convert organic solids to methane gas and produce anaerobic biomass fed back into the UASB reactor, where it converts dissolved COD at the low temperature of the waste water.

The effect of sludge recirculation rate and sludge transfer point on the performance of a UASB-digester treating domestic sewage at 15 ˚C was studied in this research. The results show increased total COD removal efficiency when increasing the sludge recirculation rate from 1% to 2.6% of the influent flow rate. Methane gas production increases with the sludge recirculation rate, in the range of 1 to 12.5% of the influent flow rate. A higher sludge transfer point results in an increased suspended COD removal efficiency and a higher VSS concentration of the UASB sludge bed.

Co-digestion was applied for improving soluble COD removal efficiency of a UASB-digester system, operated at low temperatures and treating domestic sewage with a high dissolved/suspended COD ratio. Glucose was chosen as a model co-substrate and added to the sludge digester to produce additional methanogenic biomass, which was continuously recycled to inoculate the UASB reactor. Methane production in the UASB reactor almost doubles and soluble COD removal efficiency equals the biodegradability of the influent dissolved COD, due to a twofold increase in methanogenic capacity, when applying co-digestion 16% of influent organic loading rate. Therefore, co-digestion is a suitable approach to support a UASB-digester for treatment of low temperature domestic sewage.

A pilot scale UASB-digester (130 + 50 L) was studied to treat domestic wastewater at temperatures of 10-20°C at an HRT of 6 h in the UASB reactor and 15 h in the digester. The results show a stable COD removal efficiency of 60 ± 4.6% during the operation at 12.5 to 20°C. COD removal efficiency decreases to 51.5 ± 5.5% at 10°C. The decreased COD removal efficiency is attributed to an increased influent COD load, leading to insufficient methanogenic capacity of the UASB reactor at such low temperature. Suspended COD removal efficiency was 76.0 ± 9.1% at 10-20°C. The effluent COD concentration is 90 ± 23 mg/L at temperatures between 12.5 and 20°C, while soluble COD removal efficiency fluctuates due to variation in the influent COD concentration. 80% of the influent biodegradable COD is recovered as methane gas (including dissolved methane).

Low temperature (10-25°C) hydrolysis after applying a short pre-hydrolysis at 35°C was studied compared with those without the pre-hydrolysis. Batch experiments were executed using cellulose and tributyrin as model substrates for carbohydrates and lipids. Low temperature anaerobic hydrolysis rate constants increase by a factor 1.5 - 10 after applying a short anaerobic pre-hydrolysis at 35°C. The hydrolytic activity of the supernatant collected from the digestate after batch digestion of cellulose and tributyrin at 35°C was higher than that of the supernatants collected from the low temperature (≤ 25°C) digestates. The observed hydrolysis in the UASB of a UASB-digester system, treating domestic sewage at low temperatures (10-20°C) is in line with the elevated hydrolytic activity of mesophilic supernatant.

Effects of temperature and temperature shocks on specific methanogenic activity (SMA), and acetate affinity of the digester sludge were studied. Digester sludge from a UASB (12.5°C)-digester (35°C) system, was fed with acetate at constant temperatures of 10-35°C and at varying temperatures from 35°C to 25, to 15 to 10°C. The results show no lag phase in methane production rate when applying temperature shocks of 35°C to 25, 15, and 10°C. The temperature dependency of the SMA of the digester sludge after the temperature shocks was similar to the one at constant temperatures. Acetate affinity of the digester sludge was high at the applied temperatures (10-35°C). Latter is consistent with the finding of no VFA in the effluent of the UASB-digester, treating low strength, and low temperature (12.5°C) domestic wastewater.   

The UASB-digester system to treat low strength, low temperature domestic sewage was provided with a proof-of-principle, and its essential underlying anaerobic processes were sufficiently elucidated to make the technology ready for further scaling up and demonstration in practice.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Zeeman, Grietje, Promotor
  • Rijnaarts, Huub, Promotor
  • Hendrickx, Tim, Co-promotor
Award date23 Nov 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462579798
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • municipal wastewater
  • anaerobic digesters
  • hydrolysis
  • temperature
  • water treatment sludge
  • sludges
  • water treatment
  • sewage sludge
  • sewage

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