Soluble organic macromolecules are ubiquitous in activated sludge supernatant. For the operation of membrane bioreactors (MBR) this group of substances is considered as the dominant factor causing severe membrane fouling due to the concentration polarisation phenomenon. The well established critical flux concept for the characterisation of membrane bioreactor's operation limits is based on filtration data only. As there is an cause-and-effect relation between the partial retention of organic compounds and the limited flux according the critical flux concept the aim of this study was to draw a comparison between different permeate fluxes on the retention of organic macromolecules. Thus, a municipal pilot-scale MBR with three capillary hollow fibre membrane modules was operated in sub critical, critical and supercritical flux mode, respectively and the retention of macromolecules was quantified by size exclusion chromatography. Three permeate extraction pumps allow a simultaneous operation with different operational conditions for each membrane module and proved the crucial impact of permeate flux on the fouling rate. The interchange of these conditions gave evidence of an optimised start-up procedure for MBRs characterised by higher permeate fluxes. An increased flux causes both a higher retention of soluble macromolecules and subsequent a higher fouling rate.

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