Aerobic granulation

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The biological treatment of wastewater in the waste water treatment plant often accomplished by means of the application of conventional activated sludge systems. These systems generally require large surface areas for implantation of the treatment and biomass separation units due to the usually poor settling properties of the sludge. In recent years, new technologies are being developed to improve this system. The use of aerobic granular sludge is one of them.

Aerobic Granules
Aerobic Granules

Aerobic granular biomass

A definition to discern between an aerobic granule and a simple floc with relatively good settling properties came out from the discussions which took place at the “1st IWA-Workshop Aerobic Granular Sludge” in Munich (2004) and literally stated that:

“Granules making up aerobic granular activated sludge are to be understood as aggregates of microbial origin, which do not coagulate under reduced hydrodynamic shear, and which settle significantly faster than activated sludge flocs”(de Kreuk et al. 2005[1])"

Formation of aerobic granules

SBR Reactor, with aerobic granules
SBR Reactor, with aerobic granules

Granular sludge biomass is developed in Sequencing Batch Reactors (SBR) and without carrier materials. These systems fulfil most of the requirements for their formation as:

Feast - Famine regime: short feeding periods must be selected to create feast and famine periods (Beun et al. 1999[2]), characterized by the presence or absence of organic matter in the liquid media, respectively. With this feeding strategy the selection of the appropriate micro-organisms to form granules is achieved. When the substrate concentration in the bulk liquid is high, the granule-former organisms can storage the organic matter in form of poly-β-hydroxybutyrate to be consumed in the famine period, being in advantage with the filamentous organisms.
Short settling time: This hydraulic selection pressure on the microbial community allows retaining granular biomass inside the reactor while flocculent biomass is washed-out. (Qin et al. 2004[3])
Hydrodynamic shear force : Evidences show that the application of high shear forces favours the formation of aerobic granules and the physical granule integrity. It was found that aerobic granules could be formed only above a threshold shear force value in terms of superficial upflow air velocity above 1.2 cm/s in a column SBR, and more regular, rounder, and more compact aerobic granules were developed at high hydrodynamic shear forces (Tay et al., 2001[4]).


The development of biomass in the form of aerobic granules is being recently under study for its application to the removal of organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus compounds from wastewater. Aerobic granules in aerobic SBR present several advantages compared to conventional activated sludge process such as:

Stability and flexibility: the SBR system can be adapted to fluctuating conditions with the ability to withstand shock and toxic loadings
Excellent settling properties: a smaller secondary settler will be necessary, which means a lower surface requirement for the construction of the plant.
Good biomass retention: higher biomass concentrations inside the reactor can be achieved, and higher substrate loading rates can be treated.
Presence of aerobic and anoxic zones inside the granules to perform simultaneously different biological processes in the same system (Beun et al. 1999[5] )
The cost of running a wastewater treatment plant working with aerobic granular sludge can be reduced by at least 20% and space requirements can be reduced by as much as 75% (de Kreuk et al., 2004[6]).

Treatment of industrial wastewater

Synthetic wastewater was used in most of the works carried out with aerobic granules. These works were mainly focussed on the study of granules formation, stability and nutrient removal efficiencies under different operational conditions and their potential use to remove toxic compounds. The potential of this technology to treat industrial wastewater is under study, some of the results:

  • Arrojo et al. (2004)[7] operated two reactors that were fed with industrial wastewater produced in a laboratory for analysis of dairy products (Total COD : 1500-3000 mg/L; soluble COD: 300-1500 mg/L; total nitrogen: 50-200 mg/L). These authors applied organic and nitrogen loading rates up to 7 g COD/(L·d) and 0.7 g N/(L·d) obtaining removal efficiencies of 80%.
  • Cassidy and Belia (2005)[8] obtained removal efficiencies for COD and P of 98% and for N and VSS over 97% operating a granular reactor fed with slaughterhouse wastewater (Total COD: 7685 mg/L; soluble COD: 5163 mg/L; TKN: 1057 mg/L and VSS: 1520 mg/L). To obtain these high removal percentages, they operated the reactor at a DO saturation level of 40%, which is the optimal value predicted by Beun et al. (2001) for N removal, and with an anaerobic feeding period which helped to maintain the stability of the granules when the DO concentration was limited.
  • Schwarzenbeck et al. (2004)[9] treated malting wastewater which had a high content of particulate organic matter (0.9 g TSS/L). They found that particles with average diameters lower than 25-50 µm were removed at 80% efficiency, whereas particles bigger than 50 µm were only removed at 40% efficiency. These authors observed that the ability of aerobic granular sludge to remove particulate organic matter from the wastewaters was due to both incorporation into the biofilm matrix and metabolic activity of protozoa population covering the surface of the granules.
  • Inizan et al. (2005)[10] treated industrial wastewaters from pharmaceutical industry and observed that the suspended solids in the inlet wastewater were not removed in the reactor.
  • Tsuneda et al. (2006)[11] , when treating wastewater from metal-refinery process (1.0-1.5 g NH4+-N/L and up to 22 g/L of sodium sulphate), removed a nitrogen loading rate of 1.0 kg-N/m3·d with an efficiency of 95% in a system containing autotrophic granules.

Pilot research in aerobic granular sludge

Aerobic granulation technology for the application in wastewater treatment is widely developed at laboratory scales. The large-scale experience is still limited but different institutions are making efforts to improve this technology:

  • Since 1999 DHV Water, Delft University of technology (TUD), STW (Dutch Foundation for Applied Technology) and STOWA (Dutch Foundation for Applied Water Research) have been cooperating closely on the development of the aerobic granular sludge technology (Nereda™). Based on the results obtained, a pilot plant was started up in September 2003 in Ede (Netherlands). The heart of the installation consists of two parallel biological reactors with each a height and diameter of 6 m and 0.6 respectively and a volume of 1.5 m3.
  • From the basis of the aerobic granular sludge but using a contention system for the granules, a sequencing batch biofilter granular reactor (SBBGR) with a volume of 3.1m3 was developed by IRSA (Istituto di Ricerca Sulle Acque, Italy). Different studies were carried out in this plant treating sewage at a Italian wastewater treatment plant.
  • The use of aerobic granules prepared in laboratory, as a starter culture, before adding in main system, is the base of the technology ARGUS® (Aerobic Granules Upgrade System) developed by EcoEngineering Ltd.. The granules are cultivated on-site in small bioreactors called propagators and fill up only 2 to 3% of the main bioreactor or fermentor (digestor) capacity. This system is being used in a pilot plant with a volume of 2.7 m3 located in one Hungarian pharmaceutical industry.
  • The Group of Environmental Engineering and Bioprocesses from the University of Santiago de Compostela is currently operating a 100 L pilot plant reactor.

The feasibility study showed that the aerobic granular sludge technology seems very promising (de Bruin et al., 2004[12]. Based on total annual costs a GSBR (Granular sludge Sequencing Batch Reactors) with pre-treatment and a GSBR with post-treatment proves to be more attractive than the reference activated sludge alternatives (6-16%). A sensitivity analysis shows that the GSBR technology is less sensitive to land price and more sensitive to rain water flow. Because of the high allowable volumetric load the footprint of the GSBR variants is only 25% compared to the references. However, the GSBR with only primary treatment cannot meet the present effluent standards for municipal wastewater, mainly because of exceeding the suspended solids effluent standard caused by washout of not well settleable biomass.


  1. ^ de Kreuk M.K., McSwain B.S., Bathe S., Tay S.T.L., Schwarzenbeck and Wilderer P.A. (2005). Discussion outcomes. Ede. In: Aerobic Granular Sludge. Water and Environmental Management Series. IWA Publishing. Munich, pp.165-169)
  2. ^ Beun J.J., Hendriks A., Van Loosdrecht M.C.M., Morgenroth E., Wilderer P.A. and Heijnen J.J. (1999). Aerobic granulation in a sequencing batch reactor. Water Research, Vol. 33, No. 10, pp. 2283-2290.
  3. ^ Qin L. Liu Y. and Tay J-H (2004). Effect of settling time on aerobic granulation in sequencing batch reactor. Biochemical Engineering Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 47-52.
  4. ^ Tay J.-H., Liu Q.-S. and Liu Y. (2001). The effects of shear force on the formation, structure and metabolism of aerobic granules. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, Vol. 57, Nos. 1-2, pp. 227-233.
  5. ^ Beun J.J., Hendriks A., Van Loosdrecht M.C.M., Morgenroth E., Wilderer P.A. and Heijnen J.J. (1999). Aerobic granulation in a sequencing batch reactor. Water Research, Vol. 33, No. 10, pp. 2283-2290.
  6. ^ de Kreuk, M.K., Bruin L.M.M. and van Loosdrecht M.C.M. (2004). Aerobic granular sludge: From idea to pilot plant.. In Wilderer, P.A. (Ed.), Granules 2004. IWA workshop Aerobic Granular Sludge, Technical University of Munich, 26-28 September 2004 (pp. 1-12). London: IWA.
  7. ^ Arrojo B., Mosquera-Corral A., Garrido J.M. and Méndez R. (2004) Aerobic granulation with industrial wastewater in sequencing batch reactors. Water Research, Vol. 38, Nos. 14-15, pp. 3389 – 3399
  8. ^ Cassidy D.P. and Belia E. (2005). Nitrogen and phosphorus removal from an abattoir wastewater in a SBR with aerobic granular sludge. Water Research, Vol. 39, No. 19, pp. 4817-4823.
  9. ^ Schwarzenbeck N., Erley R. and Wilderer P.A. (2004). Aerobic granular sludge in an SBR-system treating wastewater rich in particulate matter. Water Science and Technology, Vol. 49, Nos. 11-12, pp. 41-46.
  10. ^ Inizan M., Freval A., Cigana J. and Meinhold J. (2005). Aerobic granulation in a sequencing batch reactor (SBR) for industrial wastewater treatment. Water Science and Technology, Vol. 52, Nos. 10-11, pp. 335-343.
  11. ^ Tsuneda S., Ogiwara M., Ejiri Y. and Hirata A. (2006). High-rate nitrification using aerobic granular sludge. Water Science and Technology, 53 (3), 147-154.
  12. ^ de Bruin L.M.M., de Kreuk M.K., van der Roest H.F.R., Uijterlinde C. and van Loosdrecht M.C.M. (2004). Aerobic granular sludge technology: and alternative to activated sludge. Water Science and Technology, Vol. 49, Nos. 11-12, pp. 1–7)

External links

  • USC University of Santiago de Compostela. (Biogrup)
  • DHV Water -
  • TUDELF - Delf University
  • STW Dutch Foundation for Applied Technology
  • STOWA Dutch Foundation for Applied Water Research
  • IRSA Istituto di Ricerca Sulle Acque

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