The microbial processes involved in two-phase anaerobic digestion were investigated by operating a laboratory-scale acid-phase (AP) reactor and analyzing two full-scale, two-phase anaerobic digesters operated under mesophilic (35 °C) conditions. The digesters received a blend of primary sludge and waste activated sludge (WAS). Methane levels of 20% in the laboratory-scale reactor indicated the presence of methanogenic activity in the AP. A phylogenetic analysis of an archaeal 16S rRNA gene clone library of one of the full-scale AP digesters showed that 82% and 5% of the clones were affiliated with the orders Methanobacteriales and Methanosarcinales, respectively. These results indicate that substantial levels of aceticlastic methanogens (order Methanosarcinales) were not maintained at the low solids retention times and acidic conditions (pH 5.2–5.5) of the AP, and that methanogenesis was carried out by hydrogen-utilizing methanogens of the order Methanobacteriales. Approximately 43, 31, and 9% of the archaeal clones from the methanogenic phase (MP) digester were affiliated with the orders Methanosarcinales, Methanomicrobiales, and Methanobacteriales, respectively. A phylogenetic analysis of a bacterial 16S rRNA gene clone library suggested the presence of acetate-oxidizing bacteria (close relatives of Thermacetogenium phaeum, ‘Syntrophaceticus schinkii,’ and Clostridium ultunense). The high abundance of hydrogen consuming methanogens and the presence of known acetate-oxidizing bacteria suggest that acetate utilization by acetate oxidizing bacteria in syntrophic interaction with hydrogen-utilizing methanogens was an important pathway in the second-stage of the two-phase digestion, which was operated at high ammonium-N concentrations (1.0 and 1.4 g/L). A modified version of the IWA Anaerobic Digestion Model No. 1 (ADM1) with extensions for syntrophic acetate oxidation and weak-acid inhibition adequately described the dynamic profiles of volatile acid production/degradation and methane generation observed in the laboratory-scale AP reactor. The model was validated with historical data from the full-scale digesters.

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