While most membrane bioreactor (MBR) research focuses on improving membrane filtration through air scour, backwashing and chemical cleaning to physically counteract fouling, relatively few studies have dealt with fouling prevention, e.g. minimizing the impact of operational settings that negatively impact sludge filterability. To evaluate the importance of those settings, the effects of bioreactor aeration intensity variations on membrane fouling have been studied in a lab-scale MBR setup while simultaneously monitoring a unique set of key sludge parameters. In particular, this paper focuses on the impact of shear dynamics resulting from fine air bubbles on the activated sludge quality and flocculation state, impacting membrane fouling. When augmenting the fine bubble aeration intensity both the total and irreversible fouling rate increased. Major indications for sludge filterability deterioration were found to be a shift in the particle size distribution (PSD) in the 3-300μm range towards smaller sludge flocs, and increasing concentrations of submicron particles (10-1000nm), soluble microbial products and biopolymers. When lowering the aeration intensity, both the sludge characteristics and fouling either went back to background values or stabilized, respectively indicating a temporary or more permanent effect, with or without time delay. The shift in PSD to smaller flocs and fragments likely increased the total fouling through the formation of a less permeable cake layer, while high concentrations of submicron particles were likely causing increased irreversible fouling through pore blocking. The insights from the performed fouling experiments can be used to optimize system operation with respect to influent dynamics.
- Floc size dynamics
- Particle size distribution
- Size exclusion chromatography
- Submicron particle concentration