In wastewater treatment, micro- and ultra-filtration membranes are used for the separation of the activated sludge (biomass) from the treated water. This offers the advantages of a complete removal of solids and bacteria, as well as most of the viruses, namely those attached to the suspended solids. Compared to the conventional activated sludge process (CAS) this technology allows a much higher biomass concentration (MLSS) whereby the reactor volume and the footprint decreases. With increasing MLSS, the viscosity of the sludge increases, which leads to reduced oxygen transfer rates. Depending on the type of membrane and membrane module, the pre-treatment has to be more sophisticated to prevent clogging and sludging of the modules.

Due to fouling and scaling, the flux through the membranes will decrease with time. The decrease depends on the water quality as well as on the measurements taken to minimize fouling. Mainly, three strategies are available: lowering the flux, increasing the “crossflow” and cleaning of the membranes. Different strategies including backwash and chemical cleaning “in situ”, “on air” and “ex situ” can be applied. It has been proven more effective to apply preventive regular cleaning.

Besides the energy demand for oxygen supply – which is typically in the range of 0.3 kWh/m3 for municipal wastewater – the energy for fouling prevention is substantial. Immersed membranes need approximately 0.4 to 1 kWh/m3 for the coarse bubble aeration, whereas tubular modules require 1 to 4 kWh/m3 pump energy.

For proper design of industrial wastewater treatment, the verification of applicability and the development of adequate cleaning strategies, it is a precondition to run pilot tests for a sufficient period of time with the wastewater to be treated. More than 100 industrial wastewater treatment membrane bioreactors (MBR) are in operation in Europe. Data of three case studies for a sewage sludge dewatering plant in UK (12,000 m3/d), a plant for the treatment of pharmaceutical wastewater in Germany (3,600 m3/d), as well for revamping of an chemical WWTP >2,000 m3/d in Italy, are given.

MBRs will be used in future wherever high quality effluent is required, because of a sensitive receiving water body or due to the fact of water reuse as process water. MBRs are a perfect pre-treatment in industrial applications when further treatment with nanofiltration or reverse osmosis is considered.

The technique is advanced and can be applied both in municipal and industrial wastewater treatment. Higher operational costs must be balanced by superior effluent quality.

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