Table 2: Industrial HF module
This blog is summarizes the state of the art in MBR technology from the research area to industrial application.
Membrane bioreactor (MBR) is the combination of a membrane process like microfiltration or ultrafiltration with a suspended growth bioreactor, and is now widely used for municipal and industrial wastewater treatment with plant sizes up to 80,000 population equivalent (i.e. 48 MLD).
When used with domestic wastewater, MBR processes could produce effluent of high quality enough to be discharged to coastal, surface or brackish waterways or to be reclaimed for urban irrigation. Other advantages of MBRs over conventional processes include small footprint, easy retrofit and upgrade of old wastewater treatment plants. Two MBR configurations exist: internal, where the membranes are immersed in and integral to the biological reactor; and external/sidestream, where membranes are a separate unit process requiring an intermediate pumping step.
MBR history and basic operating parameters
The MBR process was introduced by the late 1960s, as soon as commercial scale ultrafiltration (UF) and microfiltration (MF) membranes were available. The original process was introduced by Dorr-Olivier Inc. and combined the use of an activated sludge bioreactor with a crossflow membrane filtration loop. The flat sheet membranes used in this process were polymeric and featured pore sizes ranging from 0.003 to 0.01 μm. Although the idea of replacing the settling tank of the conventional activated sludge process was attractive, it was difficult to justify the use of such a process because of the high cost of membranes, low economic value of the product (tertiary effluent) and the potential rapid loss of performance due to membrane fouling. As a result, the focus was on the attainment of high fluxes, and it was therefore necessary to pump the mixed liquor suspended solids (MLSS) at high crossflow velocity at significant energy penalty (of the order 10 kWh/m3 product) to reduce fouling. Due to the poor economics of the first generation MBRs, they only found applications in niche areas with special needs like isolated trailer parks or ski resorts for example.
The breakthrough for the MBR came in 1989 with the idea of Yamamoto and co-workers to submerge the membranes in the bioreactor. Until then, MBRs were designed with the separation device located external to the reactor (sidestream MBR) and relied on high transmembrane pressure (TMP) to maintain filtration. With the membrane directly immersed into the bioreactor, submerged MBR systems are usually preferred to sidestream configuration, especially for domestic wastewater treatment. The submerged configuration relies on coarse bubble aeration to produce mixing and limit fouling. The energy demand of the submerged system can be up to 2 orders of magnitude lower than that of the sidestream systems and submerged systems operate at a lower flux, demanding more membrane area. In submerged configurations, aeration is considered as one of the major parameter on process performances both hydraulic and biological. Aeration maintains solids in suspension, scours the membrane surface and provides oxygen to the biomass, leading to a better biodegradability and cell synthesis.
The other key steps in the recent MBR development were the acceptance of modest fluxes (25% or less of those in the first generation), and the idea to use two-phase bubbly flow to control fouling. The lower operating cost obtained with the submerged configuration along with the steady decrease in the membrane cost encouraged an exponential increase in MBR plant installations from the mid 90s. Since then, further improvements in the MBR design and operation have been introduced and incorporated into larger plants. While early MBRs were operated at solid retention times (SRT) as high as 100 days with mixed liquor suspended solids up to 30 g/L, the recent trend is to apply lower solid retention times (around 10-20 days), resulting in more manageable mixed liquor suspended solids (MLSS) levels (10-15 g/L). Thanks to these new operating conditions, the oxygen transfer and the pumping cost in the MBR have tended to decrease and overall maintenance has been simplified. There is now a range of MBR systems commercially available, most of which use submerged membranes although some external modules are available; these external systems also use two-phase flow for fouling control. Typical hydraulic retention times (HRT) range between 3 and 10 hours. In terms of membrane configurations, mainly hollow fibre and flat sheet membranes are applied for MBR applications.