AnnouncingFAO Manual on Aquaponics available now in resources!
FeaturesPricingSupportSign In

10.3 Aerobic Treatments

5 months ago

7 min read

Aerobic treatment enhances the oxidation of the sludge by supporting its contact with oxygen. In this case, the oxidation of the organic matter is driven mainly by the respiration of heterotrophic microorganisms. COsub2/sub, the end product of respiration, is released as is shown in Eq. (10.1).

$C6H{12}O6 + 6\ O2 \rarr 6\ CO2+6\ H2O +energy$ (10.1)

This process in aerobic reactors is mainly achieved by injecting air into the sludge—water mixture with air blowers connected to diffusers and propellers. Air injection also ensures a proper mixing of the sludge.

During this oxidative process, the macro- and micronutrients bound to the organic matter are released. This process is called aerobic mineralisation. Therefore, further nutrients can be recycled during the mineralisation process, whereas some nutrients, e.g. sodium and chloride, can also exceed their threshold for hydroponic application and must be monitored carefully before application (Rakocy et al. 2007). Aerobic mineralisation of organic matter, derived from the solid removal unit (e.g. clarifier or drum filter) in RAS, is an easy way to recycle nutrients for subsequent aquaponic application.

Moreover, during the aerobic digestion process, the pH drops and promotes the mineralisation of bound minerals trapped in the sludge. For example, Monsees et al. (2017) showed that P was released from RAS sludge due to this pH shift. This decrease in pH is mainly driven by respiration and to a lower extent probably by nitrification.

Due to a constant supply of oxygen via aeration of the mineralisation chamber and the abundance of organic matter, heterotrophic microorganisms find ideal conditions to grow. This results in an increase of respiration and the release of COsub2/sub that dissolves in water. COsub2/sub forms carbonic acid which dissociates and thereby lowers the pH of the process water as illustrated in the following equation:

$CO{2(g)}+2\ H2O \rarr H3O^++{HCO3}^-$ (10.2)

RAS-derived wastewater often contains NHsub4/subsup+/sup and additionally is characterised by a neutral pH of around 7, because the pH in RAS needs to be kept at that level to ensure optimal microbial conversion of NHsub4/subsup+/sup to NOsub3/sub within the biofilter (i.e. nitrification). The nitrification process can contribute to the decrease in pH in aerobic reactors in the starting phase by releasing protons to the process water as can been seen in the following equation:

${NH4}^+ + 2\ O2 \rarr {NO3}^- +2\ H^++H2O+energy$ (10.3)

This is at least valid for the starting phase where the pH is still above 6. At a pH ≤ 6, nitrification might significantly slow down or even cease (Ebeling et al. 2006). However, this does not represent a problem for the mineralisation unit.

The general decrease of the pH in the aerobic mineralisation unit in the ongoing process is the main driver of the release of nutrients present under the form of precipitated minerals as calcium phosphates. Monsees et al. (2017) noted that around 50% of the phosphate in the sludge was acid soluble, derived from a Tilapia RAS where a standard feed containing fishmeal was applied. Here, around 80% of the phosphate within the RAS was lost by the cleaning of the decanter and the discarding of the sludge—water mixture. Considering this fact, the big potential of mineralisation units for aquaponic applications becomes clears.

The advantages of aerobic mineralisation are the low maintenance with no need for skilled personnel and no subsequent reoxygenation. The enriched water can be used directly for plant fertilisation, ideally managed by an online system for the adequate preparation of the nutrient solution. A disadvantage compared to anaerobic mineralisation is that no methane is produced (Chen et al. 1997) and, as already mentioned, the higher energy demand due to the need for constant aeration.

10.3.1 Aerobic Mineralisation Units

image-20200930225742179

Fig. 10.2 Schematic example of an aerobic mineralisation unit operated in a batch mode. Mineralisation chamber (brown) is separated from the outlet chamber (blue) by a sieve plate that is covered by a solid cover plate during the mineralisation process (strong aeration) to prevent clogging and formation of fine particles. Organic-rich water from a clarifier or drum filter enters the mineralisation unit via the inlet. After a mineralisation cycle is completed, nutrient-rich, solid-free water exits the mineralisation unit via the outlet and is either directly transferred to the hydroponic unit or kept in a storage tank until needed

A design example of an aerobic mineralisation unit is presented in Fig. 10.2. The inlet is connected to the solid removal unit via a valve, which allows discontinuous refilling of the mineralisation chamber with a mixture of sludge and water. The mineralisation chamber is aerated via compressed air to promote the respiration of heterotrophic bacteria and to keep anaerobic denitrification processes as minimal as possible. To prevent organic material from leaving the mineralisation chamber, a sieve plate could serve as a barrier. Ideally, a second, impermeable cover plate should be used to cover the sieve during the mineralisation process (during aeration). This should prevent the sieve plate from clogging as during the heavy aeration the organic material would be constantly moved against the sieve plate. Before transferring the nutrient-rich water from the mineralisation chamber to the hydroponic unit, aeration is stopped to allow the particles to settle. Subsequently, the cover plate is removed, and the nutrient-enriched water can pass through the sieve plate and leave the mineralisation chamber via the outlet as suggested in Fig. 10.2. Finally, the cover plate is put in place again, mineralisation chamber is refilled with RAS-derived sludge—water mixture, and the mineralisation process starts again (i.e. batch process).

The mineralisation unit should have at least twice the volume of the clarifier to allow for a continuous mineralisation. One mineralisation cycle can last for up to 5—30 days depending on the system, organic load and required nutrient profile and has to be elaborated for each individual system. For systems including a drum filter, as it is the case in most modern RAS, the mineralisation unit size has to be adjusted according to the daily or weekly sludge outflow of the drum filter. Since that has not been tested in an experimental setup so far, specific recommendations are not currently possible.

10.3.2 Implementation

An example of the implementation of an aerobic mineralisation unit into a decoupled aquaponic system is presented in Fig. 10.3. Since no pre- and post-treatment (e.g. re-oxygenation) is required, the mineralisation unit can be directly placed between the solid removal unit and the hydroponic beds. By installing a valve before and after the mineralisation unit, a discontinuous operation and nutrient delivery to the hydroponic unit on-demand are possible, but in many cases, an additional storage tank would be required. Ideally, after directing nutrient-rich water to the hydroponic unit, the displaced water is replaced with new sludge and water from the solid removal unit. Depending on the volume of the mineralisation unit, it is important to note that refilling with new sludge—water mixture can lead to an increase in pH again, and thus the mineralisation process could be interrupted. By increasing the size of the mineralisation unit, this effect would be buffered. In the study by Rakocy et al. (2007) investigating liquid organic waste from two aquaculture systems, a retention time of 29 days for aerobic mineralisation resulted in a substantial mineralisation success. Nevertheless, this also depends on the TS content within the mineralisation chamber, on the feed applied to the RAS, on the temperature and on the nutrient requirements of the plants that are produced within the hydroponic unit.

image-20200930225828273

Fig. 10.3 Schematic picture of a decoupled aquaponic system including an aerobic mineralisation unit. Water can be transferred to the nutrient reservoir either from the RAS water loop or directly from the mineralisation unit