The start-up and activation of a nitrifying rotating biological contactor (RBC) and its performance inside a culture tank of rainbow trout were studied. First, in a lab-scale operation, the system was fed with a synthetic medium containing a high ammonia concentration (567 mg NH4+-N L−1) and operated at a high hydraulic retention time (HRT) (6.5 days) to minimize the wash-out of the biomass and promote the biofilm formation. Then, both inlet ammonia concentration and HRT were decreased in order to obtain operational conditions similar to those of the culture tank. During this period, the RBC was able to treat an ammonia loading rate (ALR) of 0.64 g N-NH4+ L−1 d−1 with a removal efficiency within 70–100%. Pilot-scale experiments were carried out in culture tanks of rainbow trout. The operation of a recirculating system with the RBC unit was compared with a recirculating system without biological treatment and with a flow-through system. The use of this in-situ nitrifying unit allowed working at a recirculation ratio of 90% without negative effects on either growth or the condition factor of fishes. Up to 70% of ammonia generated was removed and a removal rate of 1.41 g NH4+-N m−2 d−1 was reached.

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