We found anoxic zones in aerated activated sludge flocs, and demonstrated denitrification under normal operating conditions. Sulfate reduction was not found. Micro-environments and microbial conversions in flocs from bulking and non-bulking activated sludge were determined with microsensors for H2S, O2, NO2− and NO3−. Denitrification and sulfate reduction rates were mmeasured with 15N- and 35S-tracer techniques. We showed that under normal reactor conditions (ca. 20% air saturation) anoxic zones develop within flocs allowing denitrification. The denitrification rates amounted to 40% of the rates under anoxic conditions. At 100% air saturation no anoxic zones were found and no denitrification occurred. However, in flocs from bulking sludge (at 20% air saturation) anoxic zones were absent and denitrification did not occur. In bulking sludge only at total anoxia was denitrification found. Confocal microscopy showed that flocs from bulking sludge were much looser than those from non-bulking sludge. The absence of anoxic zones and of denitrification was attributed to the open floc structure, allowing advective oxygen transport.
Sulfate reduction was not detected in any of the sludges tested by microsensors or by tracer techniques even under anoxic conditions. this indicates that the sulfur cycle (sulfate reduction and sulfide oxidation) does not play a role in mineralization processes and bulking in activated sludge. Preliminary molecular work (in situ hybridization with the 16S-rRNA probe SRB385) indicated the presence of small amounts of sulfate reducing bacteria in all sludges. Either the probe is not specific or the sulfate reducers present are not active under reactor conditions.