Biological systems are being used to treat an increasing range of complex wastes; domestic and industrial wastewaters containing nutrients and refractory organic compounds, soil sites and groundwater contaminated by organics, and organic solid residues. These treatment processes rely on micro-organisms and, more than ever before, must deliver higher quality outcomes at higher levels of reliability to protect the environment. At the same time, pressures to deliver cost-effective treatment have increased. The challenge for these biological treatment technologies and the associated engineering is to achieve the environmental and economic goals simultaneously. Mathematical modelling is an essential component in developing a detailed understanding of such processes, as well as design guidelines and suitable operating and control strategies.

This paper provides a brief summary of the development of mathematical models for biological waste treatment systems, why they have become increasingly complex and how certain microbiological tools can provide the experimental means to validate more complex segregated and structured models of biological behaviour. With a number of specific modelling examples in the field of wastewater treatment, we illustrate the potential of these modern microbiological tools and their implications for gaining an improved understanding of biological waste treatment.

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