While biofilm reactors may be classified as one of seven different types, the design of each is unified by fundamental biofilm principles. It follows that state-of-the art design of each biofilm reactor type is subject to the same uncertainties (although the degree of uncertainty may vary). This paper describes unifying biofilm principles and uncertainties of importance in biofilm reactor design. This approach to biofilm reactor design represents a shift from the historical approach which was based on empirical criteria and design formulations. The use of such design criteria was largely due to inherent uncertainty over reactor-scale hydrodynamics and biofilm dynamics, which correlate with biofilm thickness, structure and function. An understanding of two fundamental concepts is required to rationally design biofilm reactors: bioreactor hydrodynamics and biofilm dynamics (with particular emphasis on mass transfer resistances). Bulk-liquid hydrodynamics influences biofilm thickness control, surface area, and development. Biofilm dynamics influences biofilm thickness, structure and function. While the complex hydrodynamics of some biofilm reactors such as trickling filters and biological filters have prevented the widespread use of fundamental biofilm principles and mechanistic models in practice, reactors utilizing integrated fixed-film activated sludge or moving bed technology provide a bulk-liquid hydrodynamic environment allowing for their application. From a substrate transformation perspective, mass transfer in biofilm reactors defines the primary difference between suspended growth and biofilm systems: suspended growth systems are kinetically (i.e., biomass) limited and biofilm reactors are primarily diffusion (i.e., biofilm growth surface area) limited.

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