Activated sludge flocs are a flocculated mass of microorganisms, extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) and adsorbed organic and inorganic material. The structure of the flocs is very heterogeneous and flocs with very different properties and morphologies may occur, depending on the conditions in the activated sludge treatment plant and wastewater composition. Present thinking suggests that cations, such as calcium, create cationic bridges with EPS excreted by the bacteria and thereby hold the various floc constituents together. However, due to the complex and heterogeneous nature of activated sludge, the mechanisms have neither been thoroughly investigated nor successfully quantified. A better understanding and description of the biological flocculation process is necessary in order to establish more efficient operational strategies. The main aim of this study was to get a comprehensive and unique insight into the floc properties of activated sludge and to assess the relative impact of chemical and physical parameters. A variety of sludges from full scale treatment plants with different settling properties were characterised. The interrelationships between floc parameters such as composition of EPS, surface properties and floc structure, and their effect on the flocculation and separation properties were assessed. The results indicate that the EPS, both in terms of quantity and quality, are very important for the floc properties of the activated sludge. However, presence of filaments may alter the physical properties of the flocs considerably. The EPS showed positive correlations to sludge volume index (SVI) if only sludges with low or moderate numbers of filaments were included. The surface properties were more affected by the composition of the EPS than by the number of filaments. The EPS showed positive correlation to negative surface charge and a negative correlation to relative hydrophobicity and flocculation ability. The negative correlation between flocculation ability and amount of EPS was surprising. The shear sensitivity, measured as degree of erosion of flocs when subjected to shear, was more affected by floc size and number of filaments than amount of EPS.

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