In wastewater treatment plants with anaerobic sludge digestion, 15–20% of the nitrogen load is recirculated to the main stream with the return liquors from dewatering. Separate treatment of this ammonium-rich digester supernatant significantly reduces the nitrogen load of the activated sludge system. Two biological applications are considered for nitrogen elimination: (i) classical autotrophic nitrification/heterotrophic denitrification and (ii) partial nitritation/autotrophic anaerobic ammonium oxidation (anammox). With both applications 85-90% nitrogen removal can be achieved, but there are considerable differences in terms of sustainability and costs. The final gaseous products for heterotrophic denitrification are generally not measured and are assumed to be nitrogen gas (N2). However, significant nitrous oxide (N2O) production can occur at elevated nitrite concentrations in the reactor. Denitrification via nitrite instead of nitrate has been promoted in recent years in order to reduce the oxygen and the organic carbon requirements. Obviously this “achievement” turns out to be rather disadvantageous from an overall environmental point of view. On the other hand no unfavorable intermediates are emitted during anaerobic ammonium oxidation. A cost estimate for both applications demonstrates that partial nitritation/anammox is also more economical than classical nitrification/denitrification. Therefore autotrophic nitrogen elimination should be used in future to treat ammonium-rich sludge liquors.

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