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Aeration Design Aspects for Aerobic

Digestion of Mechanically Thickened
Waste Activated Sludge
Arnim Hertle, GHD,
Derek de Waal, GHD,
A large dairy factory in Victoria was frequently experiencing strong odour emissions from
their wastewater treatment plant with mounting pressure from the community and EPA to
control and eliminate these odours. The odours were associated with the sludge
management practices at the site.
The investigations focussed on oxygen transfer and aeration capacity of the existing 3 No
aerobic digesters operating in series. Because of the high design dry solids concentration
in the digesters of 4 to 5% DS and the use of mechanical sludge thickening with polymer
dosing, usual aeration system design parameters for oxygen transfer do not apply
anymore. Effects of the sludge viscosity on the oxygen transfer have to be taken into
account. For 4% DS, the oxygen transfer rate was calculated as only half the already low
value allowed in design and significantly reduced (to about one tenth) compared to normal
activated sludge applications.
Based on the results from laboratory digestion trials at various DS levels and published
data from aeration systems working at DS contents similar to those in the digesters, a
model was set up that took into account DS and viscosity related impacts on the aeration
system efficiency. The model was calibrated using observed digestion plant operating
parameters and performance data. The calibrated model then allowed reviewing of the
existing installation and evaluation of options for the augmentation of the digestion plant.
A major upgrade of the aeration system in the existing 3 digesters would have been
required in order to compensate for the significantly reduced oxygen transfer rate and the
fact that the aeration system was generally undersized. Further, the installation of strong
mixers would have been required to improve the oxygen transfer in this sludge and
thereby achieve a robust performance with minimum odour risk.
It was therefore decided to install a fourth digester and operate the digestion plant at only
2% DS. As oxygen transfer into the mechanically thickened sludge at this concentration is
already fairly similar to that in mixed liquor, this option resulted in only minor aeration
system upgrade requirements and no additional mixing to achieve satisfactory aerobic
conditions and a sufficient aerobic sludge age for good sludge stabilisation.

A large dairy factory in Victoria was frequently experiencing strong odour emissions from
their wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) with mounting pressure from the community and
EPA to control and eliminate these odours.
The WWTP is exclusively treating the industrial milk processing wastewater; all human
wastes are excluded from this system. The plant is a trickling filter / activated sludge plant
operating in series with excellent performance in BOD removal as well as biological
nitrogen and phosphorus removal. The excess activated sludge from the plant is
mechanically thickened with a gravity drainage deck, treated by means of aerobic
digestion and then dried in sludge drying beds (SDBs).
The scope of the project was to identify the main odour source and to recommend a
solution to this problem.
Several inspections of the wastewater treatment plant and sludge treatment areas were
undertaken together with the operations personnel. Most of these site visits were directly
after the client received odour complaints from the community.
Odours were present around the balance tanks where the untreated wastewater with its
high BOD content, is stored temporarily. However, it was found that these odours were
localised only. Furthermore, the odour emissions from the wastewater treatment process
were negligible. Therefore both these sources were not considered relevant for the odour
However, some odour emissions of significant strength were noted from the 3 No aerobic
digesters when the aeration was turned off and on again and pockets of strong odours
were found at the SDBs.
The original WWTP design required the waste activated sludge (WAS) to be thickened to
approximately 3.5% to 4% dry solids (DS) prior to the digestion process. It was initially
assumed that this relatively high sludge concentration was indirectly the cause for the
odour emissions because of:
- Insufficient degree of stabilisation of the sludge in the aerobic digesters; and
- Ongoing biological degradation of the only partially stabilised sludge in the SDBs while
the sludge was being dried.
Therefore, as a preliminary measure, the digestion process was operated at a lower solids
concentration of around 2.8% DS, instead of 4% DS as per design, over a 12 month
period. While improved stabilisation was achieved with lesser odour potential, this practice
still led to unsatisfactory stabilisation results because of the insufficient hydraulic detention
time in the sludge digestion system. Based on these preliminary outcomes, it was agreed
that a process design review was required to identify the scope of works required to
upgrade the existing aerobic digestion system to produce well stabilised WAS.


Digestion process objectives
The general process objective of most digestion systems is sludge stabilisation. By
definition sludge stabilisation involves the reduction of the potential for odour generation
from the sludge during extended storage periods after treatment. Odour generation during
storage is commonly due to anaerobic degradation processes that produce odorous
compounds, which are released as gases when either their solubility limit is reached
and/or the sludge is disturbed.
Stabilisation removes this odour potential by removing most of the (relatively) easily
biodegradable substrate in a dedicated digestion process thereby limiting further biological
activity, prior to sludge storage. The degree to which any sludge needs to be stabilised
before it can be stored safely is to some extent dependent on its intended storage time.
The storage of wet sludge has a greater odour potential than dried sludge considering that
biological activity is more viable under such conditions.
For this project, the digested sludge is pumped to SDBs where the sludge is air dried
through the combined evaporative effects of the sun and wind. The sludge is stored in a
wetted state for typically 3 to 4 months (but up to 12 months) before it is sufficiently dry to
be removed from the beds and stockpiled. This long storage period requires the digested
sludge to be well stabilised when discharged to the sludge drying beds in order to avoid
anaerobic degradation during storage and consequent odour generation.
Digester operating temperature
The operating temperature of the digesters was reported to be between 25 C and 35 C.
These temperatures characterise a mesophilic temperature range which is relatively
unusual for typical aerobic sludge digestion processes. This higher operating temperature
is due to a combination of the generally higher temperature of the factory effluent (relative
to typical municipal applications), mild climatic conditions, and the autogenous (self)
heating of the aerobic digestion process.
A review of the solids load showed that the digestion plant was overloaded by
approximately 40% (ca. 1,550 kg DS/d instead of 1,090 kg DS/d).
Hydraulically the digestion plant was also significantly overloaded. It was designed for a
sludge feed of 1,090 kg/d at 4-5% DS whereas in practice the solids load was higher and
the sludge feed concentration was only 2.8% DS.
The problems with the insufficient hydraulic retention time were aggravated when an
attempt was made to increase the oxygen transfer into the digestion process by installing
additional surface aerators. In order to avoid splashing by these, the sludge levels in the
respective digesters were lowered, which led to a further decrease in hydraulic retention
In addition, the WWTP was operating at a lower sludge age than assumed in the original
design calculations. As a result the digesters were fed with lesser stabilised sludge which
in turn requires a longer sludge retention time in the digestion process.

Review of existing performance

An evaluation of sludge analysis results showed an average volatile suspended solids
(VSS) destruction of only around 7.4%. It is noted that a low VSS destruction rate can
theoretically still lead to a well stabilised sludge with low odour emission potential
depending on the biological availability of the organic matter, in other words depending on
how much of the total volatile solids are digestable. However, neither the proportion of
digestable VSS in the sludge nor a relationship between VS destruction and odour
emission potential had been established.
The original WWTP design calculation assumed 30% VSS destruction in the digestion
process. Whilst this expected level of performance is only an assumed measure for
satisfactory stabilisation whereby sludge has a low odour potential, it was noted that the
existing sludge digestion process did not meet this performance expectation.
Comparison with other reported digester performance
Little suitable operating data from other aerobic digesters operating with mechanically
thickened WAS at 2.8% DS and above was found. However, Grohmann and Ppel (1993)
investigated the impacts of different aeration and mixing systems on VSS destruction and
other performance parameters for aerobic thermophilic digesters operating on
mechanically thickened mixed raw primary and secondary sludge of 3 to 5% DS in large
pilot / small technical scale. The aeration systems that were tested included fine bubble
diffused air aeration, however, assisted by a mechanical mixer. They found that at the
high DS concentrations fine bubble diffused air aeration systems required that additional
element of mechanical mixing in order to perform. The VSS destruction rates achieved in
those tests was around 30%.
A comparison of the operating parameters of their test set up with the operating
parameters of the dairy factory digesters showed, that the dairy factory plant had a
significantly longer sludge retention time, but significantly lower total power inputs and
aeration power inputs. Installation of approximately 40 kW mixing per tank would be
required to provide mixing energy similar to the set up used by Grohmann and Ppel.
Laboratory digestion tests
In parallel with the theoretical review of the load parameters, laboratory tests were carried
out with fresh thickened excess activated sludge with 12 days aerobic sludge age and a
concentration of approximately 3% DS. The sludge sample was taken from the feed to the
digesters. It was split into three sub-samples and two of these sub-samples were diluted
down to 2.5% DS and 2% DS. All three samples were then aerated and observed for
50 days. Small samples were regularly taken and analysed and water losses due to
sampling and evaporation were compensated for by addition of demineralised water.
The laboratory trials showed a high rate of biodegradation, measured as volatile
suspended solids (VSS) destruction, during the first 26 days of sludge aeration for all three
samples. After that period, the rate of VSS destruction slowed down, but was still
considerable. The graph resembles the shape of a growth phase followed by an
exhaustion phase. However, for reasons of simplicity it was approximated with 3 linear
functions where the second function is considerably steeper than the first and the third.
This is shown in Figure 1.
It is noted that the graph for 3% DS shows a delay of approximately 5 days until this
sludge also enters into the second, more rapid VSS destruction phase. This could be due
to aeration problems in the higher concentrated sludge, as explained later.

In practice, operation of the digesters at 2.8% DS had already resulted in an improved

sludge stabilisation compared to operation at the design DS concentration of 4% DS,
despite the shorter solids retention time (SRT) in the digesters. As the laboratory trial
showed that 2.8% DS again had a slower VSS destruction performance than the even
thinner sludges, it was considered likely that impacts of the solids concentration on the
aeration system performance were a main reason for the under-performance of the sludge
stabilisation plant. A further review of the aeration system was therefore carried out.

Figure 1 VSS destruction during the laboratory sludge aeration trials


Existing system
The 3 No open digester tanks are similar in capacity and design and are operated in
series. Aeration is provided by two blowers which supply air to fine bubble membrane
diffusers mounted on the floor of the digesters. The diffusers are fitted with silicon
membranes. In addition to the fine bubble diffused air aeration system, surface aerators
were installed in the first and second digester in an attempt to increase the oxygenation of
the sludge. However, both were of small nominal drive power.
It was observed that the sludge in the first digester was very thick. The pattern that the
aeration air bubbles produced on the surface of the sludge was very atypical for fine
bubble diffused air aeration as only a number of very large bubbles appeared on the
surface indicating coalescing of the fine bubbles. The throw pattern from the surface
aerator and the induced flow pattern also indicated a high viscosity, presumably due to
high solids content and polymer addition from the WAS thickening process.
Theoretical background
The aeration of sludges is very often carried out with mechanical aeration devices such as
aspirating aerators/mixers or surface aerators. For those combinations the aeration

system design is based on the actual oxygen demand (AOR) of the digestion process
which is then converted into an energy demand, based on typical aeration efficiencies
(kg O2/kWh). Safety factors and factors that account for the particular properties of
sludge, for example a higher viscosity compared with water, are included in the aeration
Where fine bubble diffused air aeration is employed for the digestion process, a different
approach similar to that used for the design of diffused air aeration systems for activated
sludge processes should be used. It is more difficult to establish typical aeration
efficiencies for diffused air aeration systems than for mechanical surface aeration systems
due to the smaller number of such installations in operation. In addition, diffused air
aeration provides mixing only by means of the rising air bubbles. However, good mixing,
which can only be achieved by mechanical means, is of increasing significance for the
oxygen transfer the thicker the sludge is. Conversely, power inputs for a diffused air
aeration system becomes less significant for thicker sludges because power is directly
proportional to sludge depth and air flow rate, and not the oxygen transfer rate. The
calculation of the aeration efficiency of diffused air aeration in sludge applications therefore
has to include the power for mechanical mixing.
Little data has been published on the digestion of mechanically thickened activated sludge
using diffused air that would allow a typical aeration system design calculation. However,
laboratory, pilot and full scale membrane bioreactor test results had been published that
particularly dealt with fine bubble diffused air aeration systems in those reactors (Gnder,
1999, Wagner et. al., 2001). As membrane bioreactors can operate at activated sludge
concentrations significantly higher than conventional activated sludge systems, these
results were considered relevant for the aeration system design for the dairy factory
In particular the laboratory and pilot scale work (Gnder, 1999) investigated the effects of
the increased viscosity at higher activated sludge concentrations on the factor. The
tests were carried out up to sludge concentrations similar to those in the digesters. It was
found that the DS concentration as well as the viscosity of the mixed liquor had a
significant impact on the factor such that it decreased significantly with increasing DS
concentration and viscosity. These findings were converted into formulae that allow
estimation of as a function of DS or viscosity.
It is noted that due to the non-Newtonian characteristics of mixed liquor, in particular at
higher DS levels, its viscosity can only be determined as dynamic viscosity. For nonNewtonian fluids viscosity is a function of the shear rate. Therefore, a representative
shear rate had to be determined that best characterised the relevant processes at the air
bubble, where the oxygen transfer from the air into the mixed liquor (or sludge) actually
takes place. Gnder used a shear rate of 40 s-1, based on typical values for steady state
bubble rise velocity and bubble diameter, to describe the shear forces in aerated mixed
The full scale tests carried out by Wagner et. al. (2001) confirmed the impact of the mixed
liquor suspended solids content on . The factors measured in full scale were higher
than the ones obtained by Gnder which was attributed by Wagner to the difficulties in
transferring results from small scale test plants to full scale plants.

Based on the air throughputs of the blowers and the characteristics of the diffusers, the
Standard Oxygen Transfer Rate (SOTR) of the aeration system in each digester was
For the digestion process the total actual oxygen requirement (AOR) was estimated based
on the observed VSS destruction and a specific oxygen requirement per kg VSS
destroyed. In the original design calculations for the factory WWTP the latter had been
assumed as 2.3 kg O2/kg VSS destroyed. This is far higher than for example the
1.4 kg/kg VSS destroyed that Eckenfelder (1980) suggests. Unfortunately it was not
documented why and how the original design calculation arrived at the higher specific
oxygen requirement. Two parallel calculations were therefore carried out with both factors.
For the purpose of the work on the dairy factory digesters Gnders equations were used
to estimate for various sludge DS concentrations. A formula, developed by comparing
Gnders and Wagners results for similar DS concentrations, was then applied to the
results to transfer them from lab / pilot scale to full scale. The thus calculated factor was
used, together with other factors such as the salinity factor etc., like in a normal aeration
system design calculation, to convert the calculated AOR to an equivalent Standard
Oxygen Requirement (SOR).
In theory the SOTR calculated from the aeration system properties and the SOR
calculated from the observed VSS destruction should approximately match. However, the
results showed a significant difference. The main reason for this difference is considered
to be an inaccurate estimate of because of:
Impacts of the polymer from the mechanical thickening process on the sludge
viscosity and / or oxygen transfer, in particular in the first digester as the polymer is
expected to hydrolyse in the digester and thus lose its bridging effect on the sludge
Different activated sludge properties due to the purely dairy-industrial nature of the
wastewater; and
Inaccuracies in transferring the calculated factors from laboratory / pilot scale to full
scale using a formula that was based on full scale test results at comparatively low
DS concentrations only.
A correction factor CF was then introduced to modify (giving * = /CF) such that the
respectively calculated SOR* matched SOTR. The impact of the two different specific
oxygen requirements per kg VSS destroyed mentioned above was only a different CF.
Using the correction factor obtained from the review of the observed digester performance,
the aeration design parameters and oxygen requirements for design and current operating
conditions were calculated.

The results from the review of observed digester performance are shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Review of observed digester performance



Results for
Results for
2.3 kg O2/kg VSS 1.4 kg O2/kg VSS
(original design
62 1)
62 1)
VSS feed
VSS destruction
0.09 1)
Existing installation with digesters operating at reduced level.
The Table shows the results for both VSS-destruction-specific oxygen requirements as
mentioned above, to demonstrate that the end result is the same because differences in
intermediate results of the calculus are compensated for in the correction factor CF.
With the correction factor obtained from the assessment of the observed digester
performance, the aeration parameters and oxygen requirements for design VSS loads and
current VSS loads to the digesters were calculated as shown in Table 2 and Table 3. The
calculations were carried out over a range of DS concentrations in the sludge to allow an
assessment of the positive effect of lower sludge concentration on the aeration system
requirements versus its negative effects on the required digester volume.
Table 2 Aeration parameters and oxygen requirements for design digester load at various DS

2.0% DS
2.8% DS
140 1)
VSS feed
VSS destruction
0.14 1)
Existing installation with all digesters operating at maximum level.
For 2.3 kg O2/kg VS destroyed

4.0% DS
140 1)
0.06 1)

It is evident from Table 2 and Table 3 that the existing aeration system was undersized for
the design duty and even more so for the current duty.

Table 3 Aeration parameters and oxygen requirements for existing digester load at various DS

2.0% DS
2.8% DS
140 1)
VSS feed
VSS destruction
0.14 1)
Existing installation with all digesters operating at maximum level.
For 2.3 kg O2/kg VS destroyed

4.0% DS
140 1)
0.06 1)

As a result of a whole of life costs analysis it was concluded that the most cost effective
augmentation of the digestion plant would be achieved by the addition of a 4th digester in
series plus operation at 2% DS feed sludge concentration.
When it became clear that a combination of additional digester volume and reduced feed
DS content was likely to be the preferred augmentation strategy, the surface aerators in
the first two digesters were not included in the calculation of SOTR in order to avoid too
much conservatism in the design calculations. The reason behind that was that the
correction factor obtained from the observed digester performance is an average over the
three digesters. However some factors such as the impact of the polymer or a higher fat
content in the sludge would decrease once a fourth digester is added and the plant is
operating at a lower overall DS level. It was therefore concluded that, within the general
accuracy of the calculus, which includes many assumptions and estimates, the correction
factor was likely to already be on the conservative side for the augmented digestion plant.
Inclusion of the surface aerators would have increased it further and thus probably lead to
an oversized system. It was concluded that, if required in future, simple pulley changes on
the blowers could increased air throughput.
An assessment of the aerobic digestion process of a dairy factory WWTP and a detailed
review of the aeration system design together with operational evidence and the results of
laboratory sludge digestion tests, showed significant impacts of the DS concentration on
the aeration system efficiency, most likely due to the increasing viscosity of the sludge with
increasing DS levels. These findings are in line with results from aeration trials carried out
on membrane bioreactors.
The predictions of theoretical aeration calculations were calibrated against observed
digester performance. These results and the results from the laboratory test enabled the
formulation of a model for the digestion process and aeration system which was then used
to fully assess the existing installation and determine the most cost effective augmentation

It was found that the digester aeration system was undersized and could not deliver
sufficient oxygen to provide truly aerobic conditions. Key issues were
- a shorter aerobic sludge age in the WWTP and a significantly higher VSS feed load
due to higher WAS production than assumed in the design;
- that the oxygen transfer rate was significantly lower than assumed in the design
- that the installed aeration capacity was significantly less than the design capacity; and
- that as a result the total aerobic sludge age was not long enough to provide
As a result of a whole of life costs analysis it was concluded that the most cost effective
augmentation of the digestion plant was the addition of a 4th digester plus operation at 2%
DS feed sludge concentration.
Eckenfelder W. W., jr. (1980); Principles of water quality management; CBI Publishing
Company Inc.; Boston, Massachusetts; p. 437
Grohmann W., Ppel H. J. (1993); Aerob-thermophile Klrschlammstabilisierung Verbesserte Zukunftsaussichten durch optimierte Mischung und Belftung?; Verein zur
Frderung des Instituts fr Wasserversorgung, Abwasserbeseitigung und Raumplanung
der Technischen Hochschule Darmstadt;
Schriftenreihe WAR 66:
31. Darmstdter

Klrschlammentsorgung Stand und Entwicklungstendenzen; pp. 67-98
Gnder B. (1999); Rheologische Eigenschaften von belebten Schlmmen und deren
Einfluss auf die Sauerstoffzufuhr; Korrespondenz Abwasser 46 Nr. 12; pp. 1896-1904
Wagner M., Cornel P., Krause S. (2001),
Sauerstoffeintrag und -Werte in
Membranbelebungsanlagen, Korrespondenz Abwasser 48 Nr. 11; pp. 1573-1579