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10.4 Anaerobic Treatments

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Anaerobic digestion (AD) has long been used for the stabilisation and reduction of sludge mass process, mainly because of the simplicity of operation, relatively low costs and production of biogas as potential energy source. General stoichiometric representation of anaerobic digestion can be described as follows:

$CnHaOb+(n-a/4-b/2)\cdot H2O \rarr (n/2-a/8+b/4)\cdot CO2+(n/2+a/8-b/4)\cdot CH4$ (10.4)

Equation 10.4 Biogas general mass balance (Marchaim 1992).

And the theoretical methane concentration can be calculated as follows:

$[CH_4]=0.5+(a/4+b/2)/2n$ (10.5)

Equation 10.5 Theoretical expected methane concentration in the biogas (Marchaim 1992).

The ultimate products from AD are mostly inorganic material (e.g. minerals), slightly degraded organic compounds and biogas which is typically composed of >55% methane (CHsub4/sub) and carbon dioxide (COsub2/sub), with only small levels (\1%) of hydrogen sulphide (H<sub2/subS) and total ammonia nitrogen (NHsub3/subsup+/sup/NH4sup+/sup) (Appels et al. 2008).


Fig. 10.4 Schematic diagram showing anaerobic degradation of organic matter based on Garcia et al. (2000)

During the process of AD, the organic sludge undergoes considerable changes in its physical, chemical and biological properties and schematically can be divided into four stages (Fig. 10.4). The first stage is hydrolysis, where complex organic matter such as lipids, polysaccharides, proteins and nucleic acids degrade into soluble organic substances (sugars, amino acids and fatty acids). This step is generally considered rate-limiting (Deublein and Steinhauser 2010). In the second acidogenesis step, the monomers formed in the first step split further, and volatile fatty acids (VFA) are produced by acidogenic (fermentative) bacteria along with ammonia, COsub2/sub, Hsub2/subS and other by-products. The third step is acetogenesis, where the VFA and alcohols are further digested by acetogens to produce mainly acetic acid as well as COsub2/sub and Hsub2/sub. This conversion is controlled to a large extent by the partial pressure of Hsub2/sub in the mixture. The last step is methanogenesis where methane is mainly produced by two groups of methanogenic bacteria: acetotrophic archaea, which split acetate into methane and COsub2/sub, and hydrogenotrophic archaea, which use hydrogen as an electron donor and carbon dioxide as electron acceptor to produce methane (Appels et al. 2008).

Various factors such as sludge pH, salinity, mineral composition, temperature, loading rate, hydraulic retention time (HRT), carbon-to-nitrogen (C/N) ratio and volatile fatty acid content influence the digestibility of the sludge and the biogas production (Khalid et al. 2011).


Fig. 10.5 Scheme of an upflow anaerobic sludge blanket reactor (UASB)

Anaerobic sludge treatment from RAS began about 30 years ago with reports on sludge from freshwater RAS (Lanari and Franci 1998) followed by reports on marine (Arbiv and van Rijn 1995; Klas et al. 2006; McDermott et al. 2001) and brackish water operations (Gebauer and Eikebrokk 2006; Mirzoyan et al. 2008). Recently, the use of UASB (Fig. 10.5) for AD of RAS sludge followed by biogas production as an alternative source of energy was suggested (Mirzoyan et al. 2010). The reactor is made of a tank, part of which is filled with an anaerobic granular sludge blanket containing the active microorganism species. Sludge flows upwards through a 'microbial blanket' where it is degraded by the anaerobic microorganisms and biogas is produced. An inverted cone settler at the top of the digester allows gas— liquid separation. When the biogas is released from the floc, it is oriented into the cone by the deflectors to be collected. A slow mixing in the reactor results from the upwards flow coupled with the natural movement of the microbial flocs that are attached to biogas bubbles. At some point, the floc leaves the gas bubble and settles back down allowing for the effluent to be free from TSS, which can then be recycled back to the system or released. The main advantages of the UASB are the low operational costs and simplicity of operation while providing high (>92%) solidremoval efficiency for wastes with low (1—3%) TSS content (Marchaim 1992; Yogev et al. 2017).

Two recent case studies demonstrated the use of UASB as a treatment for solids in pilot scale marine and saline RAS, which provide an example of the potential advantages of this unit in aquaponics (Tal et al. 2009; Yogev et al. 2017). A detailed look at the carbon balance suggested that about 50% of the introduced carbon (from feed) was removed by fish assimilation and respiration, 10% was removed by aerobic biodegradation in the nitrification bioreactor and 10% was removed in the denitrification reactor (Yogev et al. 2017). Therefore, overall about 25% carbon was introduced into the UASB reactor of which 12.5% was converted to methane, 7.5% to COsub2/sub and the rest (~5%) remained as nondegradable carbon in the UASB. In summary, it was demonstrated that the use of UASB allowed better water recirculation (>99%), smaller (\8%) production of sludge when compared with typical RAS that do not have on-site solid treatment, and recovery of energy that can account for 12% of the overall energy demand of the RAS. It should be noted that using UASB in aquaponics will also allow significant recovery of up to 50% more nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium since they are released into the water as a result of solid biodegradation (Goddek et al. 2018).

The anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) is a more advanced technology. The main process consists of using a special membrane to separate the solids from the liquid instead of using a decanting process as in UASB. The sludge fermentation occurs in a simple anaerobic tank and the effluents leave it through the membrane. Depending on the membrane pore size (going down to 0.1—0.5 μm) even microorganisms can be retained. There are two types of membrane bioreactor design: one uses a side-stream mode outside the tank, and the other has the membrane unit submerged into the tank (Fig. 10.6), the latter being more favourable in AnMBR application due to its more compact configuration and lower energy consumption (Chang 2014). Membranes of different materials such as ceramic or polymeric (e.g. polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), polyethylene, polyethersulfone (PES), polyvinyl chloride (PVC)) may be configured as plate and frame, hollow fibre or tubular units (Gander et al. 2000; Huang et al. 2010). AnMBR has several significant advantages over typical biological reactors such as the UASB, namely, decoupling of (long) sludge retention time (SRT) and (short) hydraulic residence time (HRT), hence enabling the problem of the AD process's slow kinetics to be overcome; very high effluent quality in which most nutrients remain; and removal of pathogens and a small footprint (Judd and Judd 2008). In addition, efficient biogas production in the AnMBR can possibly result in a net energy balance.


Fig. 10.6 (a) Side-stream MBR with a separate filtration unit with the retained fluid recycled back to the bioreactor; (b) submerged MBR: filtration unit integrated into the bioreactor. (Gander et al. 2000)

While this technology deserves a lot of attention and research, it should be noted that since it is a fairly new technology, there are still several significant drawbacks that must be addressed before AnMBR would be adopted by the aquaculture industry. These are the high operational costs due to membrane maintenance to prevent biofouling, regular membrane exchange and high CO<sub2/sub fraction (30—50%) in the biogas which limits its utilisation and contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission (Cui et al. 2003). On a positive note, in the near future, new biofouling prevention techniques will be developed while the membrane cost will certainly drop with the broader use of this technology. The combination of a UASB with a membrane reactor to filter the UASB effluent has been successfully studied to remove organic carbon and nitrogen (An et al. 2009). This combination seems a promising option for aquaponics for safe and sanitary use of UASB effluents.

10.4.1 Implementation

One possible solution of implementing anaerobic reactors is in a sequential manner (see also Chap. 8). A 'high pH—low pH' combination allows for harvesting methane (and thus reducing carbon) in the first high pH step and mobilising nutrients in the decarbonised sludge in a subsequent low pH environment. The advantage of this method is that the carbon reduction under high pH conditions results in less VFAs, which can occur during the low pH second step (Fig. 10.7). This approach also allows for co-digestion of green vegetative matter (i.e. from any harvesting of plants, there will be waste vegetative matter which could be put through such a digester) to increase both biogas production and nutrient recovery from the overall scheme.

Another technical integration possibility has been presented by Ayre et al. (2017). They propose to discharge the effluent of a high-pH anaerobic digester to an algal culture pond. Within that pond, algae are grown, whose biomass can be used for animal—aquaculture feed or biofertilisation (Fig. 10.8). More detailed information on this approach can be found in Chap. 11.


Fig. 10.7 Two-stage anaerobic system. In the first stage (high pH), the carbon will be removed from the sludge as biogas, whereas the low pH in the second stage allows nutrients that are trapped in the sludge do dissolve in the water. Usually, volatile fatty acids (VFA) would form in low pH environments. The removal of the carbon source in the first stage, however, limits VFA production in such a sequential setup


Fig. 10.8 Anaerobic digestion system integrated with aquaculture and algal culture based on Ayre et al. (2017)