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Wastewater Treatment

C. Benthack,* B. Srinivasan, D. Bonvin

Institut dAutomatique, Ecole Polytechnique Fe de rale de Lausanne,

Lausanne, Switzerland

Received 3 July 1999; accepted 29 June 2000

Abstract: Optimization of a fixed-bed bioreactor used in

wastewater treatment is addressed. The objective of op-

timization is to maximize the treatment efficiency of the

biofilter by manipulating the feed flow rate while satis-

fying operational constraints. Numerical results indicate

that the optimal input is characterized as being on the

boundary of the admissible region. Thus, the character-

ized optimal solution is implemented using a simple

feedback control law, which provides the optimal input

profile despite variations in substrate inlet concentration

and biomass growth rate. 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Biotechnol Bioeng 72: 3440, 2001.

Keywords: fixed-bed bioreactors; wastewater treatment;

optimal control; numerical optimization; dynamic optimi-

zation

INTRODUCTION

A typical wastewater treatment plant consists of primary

treatment, in which suspended particles are removed from

the wastewater by mechanical operations such as screening

and sedimentation, and secondary treatment, where, in gen-

eral, dissolved carbon- and nitrogen-containing wastewater

components are removed by microbial activity. In some

plants, a tertiary treatment step is added to achieve better

purification results (e.g., for the removal of phosphorus-

containing components by microorganisms). Thus, biologi-

cal processes may be employed in secondary and/or tertiary

treatment.

The two main types of bioreactors utilized in biological

wastewater treatment are activated sludge processes and

fixed-bed bioreactors. While in traditional activated sludge

treatment microorganisms are suspended in the liquid, they

are fixed on a stationary support in fixed-bed bioreactors.

The oldest form of fixed-bed bioreactors are the so-called

trickling filters that have been utilized since the nineteenth

century (Tchobanoglous and Schroeder, 1985). But, it has

only been during the last few decades that fixed-bed reac-

tors have gained interest, compared with the activated

sludge process, due to their smaller reactor size, improved

removal efficiency, reduced odor annoyance, and robust-

ness toward hydrodynamic variations and toxic shocks in

the inlet concentration. Another main feature is the filtration

of suspended particles that enables operation of the unit

without a downstream clarifier, which constitutes an intrin-

sic part of the activated sludge process. As a result, fixed-

bed bioreactors have emerged as an alternative to traditional

activated sludge secondary treatment and as a complemen-

tary tertiary treatment step after the activated sludge process

(Pujol et al., 1992, 1993).

Numerous approaches exist for modeling biofilm pro-

cesses (Chaudry and Beg, 1998; Jacob, 1994). On the other

hand, much work has been dedicated to the modeling and

optimization of activated sludge treatment, resulting in the

general and well-accepted IAWRQ model, (Henze et al.,

1987). The IAWRQ model is a kinetic model that comprises

aerobic and anoxic growth of heterotrophic and autotrophic

biomass, decay of biomass, ammonification, and hydrolysis

of entrapped particulate organic matter and nitrogen. The

model presented here for fixed-bed bioreactors uses only

one part of the IAWRQ model (i.e., the aerobic growth of

heterotrophic biomass). In addition, the necessary transport

phenomenon of the fixed-bed structure is described by par-

tial differential equations. Such a simple model has been

verified experimentally by Samb et al. (1996a).

The main contribution of this study is with regard to

optimization, where very little work has been done. Fixed-

bed bioreactors are often operated with a constant feed flow

rate at the available inlet concentration. That is, the operat-

ing conditions are not adjusted according to the varying

treatment potential of the biomass present in the reactor.

The operating conditions are often chosen in a very conser-

vative manner so as not to violate the quality requirements

at the reactor outlet for the worst-case scenario. In this

work, the feed flow rate is considered the manipulated vari-

able for the purpose of optimizing the treatment efficiency

of a fixed-bed bioreactor.

In general, such an optimization problem involves the

implementation of time-varying input profiles, which have

to be calculated using computationally expensive numerical

algorithms (Edgar and Himmelblau, 1988). Also, the input

profile changes with the growth rate of the biomass and the

substrate inlet concentration, which can vary considerably.

However, in this work, because optimal input is character-

ized as being on the boundary of the admissible region, a

Correspondence to: C. Benthack

*Present address: BASF AG, DWF/AM-L440, Ludwigshafen D-67056,

Germany. Telephone: +49-621-60-79569; fax: +49-621-60-55647; e-mail

christina.benthack@basf-ag.de

2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

simple feedback strategy is used to keep the bioreactor on

the boundary. This, on the one hand, avoids computing the

optimum numerically and, on the other hand, provides the

optimal input profile even in the presence of variations in

the substrate inlet concentration and biomass growth rate.

MODELING

This study considers an aerobic biofilter operated as a co-

current ascending column. The flow direction examined has

the advantage of reducing possible odor problems. The bio-

filter is employed for the removal of carbonaceous substrate

due to the action of microorganisms that grow in a biofilm

on the support that makes up the fixed bed. This support can

be made of different materials and different forms. Here, a

granular support of expanded clay is employed. Figure 1

provides a schematic view of the biofilter.

It is not possible to operate this unit continuously, be-

cause the biofilm growth reduces the reactor volume avail-

able for liquid and air flows and, eventually, clogs the filter.

Thus, before clogging occurs, the operation has to be

stopped and the reactor backwashed. In practice, it is back-

washed regularly (i.e., every 24 or 48 h depending on the

setup). Therefore, this process has no steady state due to the

increasing biofilm thickness that reduces the bed void frac-

tion and, thus, influences the flow velocities of both the

liquid and gas phases.

A very simplified macroscopic model of the aerobic

fixed-bed bioreactor is considered, because, in the context

of characterizing the optimal strategy for the bioreactor,

such a simple model is considered sufficient. The process

variables of interest are: (i) the concentration of the sub-

strate present in the wastewater; and (ii) the immobilized

biomass concentration. Here, only a single type of substrate,

S, and one biomass population, B, are considered. Exten-

sions to a more complex model with several substrates and

different biomass populations (e.g., nitrifying and denitri-

fying bacteria) can be envisaged to gain more biological

insight (Wanner and Gujer, 1986). With the assumption of

radial homogeneity and negligible axial dispersion, the re-

actor model considers only axial convection. In addition,

temperature effects are assumed to be negligible, because

published experimental data have indicated only a small

influence of practically occurring temperature variations

(Rusten, 1984). A similar model has been verified experi-

mentally by Samb et al. (1996a).

Model Equations

Based on material balances over infinitesimal volume ele-

ments, a model expressed as a set of partial and ordinary

differential equations has been developed:

S

t

=

Q

A

l

S

z

r

B

Y

B

l

(1)

B

t

= r

B

with the initial and boundary conditions:

Sz,t = 0 = 0, Sz = 0,t = S

in

Bz,t = 0 = B

0

(2)

where S is the substrate concentration in the bulk liquid

usually expressed in units of COD (chemical oxygen de-

mand), B is the fixed biomass concentration with respect to

reactor volume, S

in

is the inlet substrate concentration, Q is

the volumetric feed flow rate, and A is the cross-sectional

area of the reactor.

l

represents the bed void fraction oc-

cupied by the liquid phase. r

B

represents the biomass growth

rate, and Y

B

is the biomass yield. Substrate is transported

with the liquid flow along the column, and this convection

is modeled by the partial derivative term with respect to the

axial coordinate z.

Biomass grows by the consummation of the substrate by

active microorganisms that grow in the biofilm. It is as-

sumed that the microbial activity is significant only in the

biofilm, and thus any liquid-phase substrate removal is ne-

glected. Biomass growth kinetics have been chosen in a

general structure that is capable of representing the different

cases of substrate- and diffusion-limited kinetics:

r

B

=

max

S

K

S

+ S

B

K

B

+ B

(3)

where

max

is the maximal growth rate, K

S

is the saturation

constant for substrate, and K

B

is the saturation constant of

active biomass. The Monod kinetic term, S/K

S

+ S, repre-

sents the substrate limitation of a single substrate, S. Mass

transfer limitations inside the biofilm result in decreasing

microbial activity with increasing biofilm depth (Grasmick

et al., 1979). It has been reported that the active biofilm

length is on the order of 100 m (Harris and Hansford,

1976; Skowlund and Kirmse, 1989). The last term, B/K

B

+

B, represents these diffusional limitations on the biomass Figure 1. Schematic view of the fixed-bed bioreactor.

BENTHACK ET AL.: OPTIMAL OPERATING STRATEGY FOR FIXED-BED BIOREACTORS 35

growth and was used instead of complex calculation of an

effectiveness factor. For Monod kinetics, similar expres-

sions that approximate the numerical solutions have been

suggested (Kobayashi et al., 1976; Samb et al. 1996a; Vos

et al., 1990; Yamane, 1981; Yamane et al., 1981). The ap-

proach presented here considers, in a very simple manner,

the limited influence of biomass concentration on the bio-

mass growth.

The volume fraction occupied by the biomass is deter-

mined as:

b

=

B

(4)

where denotes the local density of the biofilm. The par-

tition of free column volume between the gas and liquid

phases and hence the liquid hold-up

l

can be expressed by

parameter :

l

(1 )(

0

b

) (5)

where

o

is a material-dependent constant that denotes the

bed void fraction before inoculation. depends on the

Reynolds numbers of the liquid and gas phase; that is, the

hydrodynamic conditions determined by the gas and liquid

velocities (Samb, 1997, Samb et al., 1996b). The following

expression for the partition coefficient is used in this study

(Achwal and Stepanek 1976):

=

1

1 + 20.45

Q

A

0.13

g

0.563

(6)

where (Q/A) and v

g

(expressed in meters per hour) are the

liquid and gas superficial velocities, respectively.

Simulation Study

The dynamic model given earlier is discretized in space

using finite differences and integrated in time using the

AdamsBashforth algorithm (Hirsch, 1988). Tests on nu-

merical stability have indicated that 41 spatial discretization

points are sufficient. The parameter values utilized for the

simulation are given in Table I. The wastewater feed com-

position, S

in

is assumed to be constant in this simulation

study.

The simulation is performed for a complete operation

cycle between two successive backwashings. A cycle is

considered complete when:

max

z

B(z,t

f

) = B

max

(7)

where t

f

is the final time at which the bioreactor has to be

backwashed, and B

max

is the maximum allowable biomass

concentration throughout the reactor. In this work, B

max

0.6

0

, which means that 60% of the bed void fraction is

occupied by the biomass.

To illustrate conventional reactor operation, simulations

are performed with a constant value of Q. Figures 2 and 3

show typical concentration profiles along the column at

time intervals of 5 h for S and B, respectively. In this simu-

lation study, the reactor operation cycle is 36.5 h.

The substrate concentration decreases with increasing

axial position in the column due to consumption by the

biomass. It can also be seen from Figure 2 that, at a given

axial position, S decreases with time as the biomass present

in the reactor increases. In the beginning of the cycle, the

biomass is homogeneously distributed along the column.

However, toward the end of the cycle, because more sub-

strate is available at the bottom (entrance) than at the top of

the reactor, the growth rate and the biomass concentration

are higher at the bottom.

The influence of the feed flow rate, Q, on the wastewater

treatment capability of the reactor is investigated in what

follows. As a result of various simulation studies, the fol-

lowing qualitative conclusions can be drawn: (i) a larger

flow rate, Q, leads to a lower residence time, a concentration

profile that is less steep along the reactor, and a higher

concentration of S at the exit of the reactor, and (ii) the

operation time, t

f

, is almost insensitive to variations in feed

flow rate. The time depends on the growth rate at the bottom

of the reactor, which is almost independent of Q.

Table I. Parameter values for the bioreactor model.

Symbol Value Units

A 1.0 m

2

B

0

0.67 kg/m

3

S

in

0.4 kg (COD)/m

3

max

0.18 kg/(m

3

h)

K

S

0.16 kg (COD)/m

3

K

B

0.5 kg/m

3

v

g

40 m/h

Y

B

0.4 kg/kg (COD)

0

0.4

H 4.5 m

18.4 kg/m

3 Figure 2. Substrate concentration profiles at time intervals of 5 h for

Q 3 m

3

/h, first profile at t 1 h.

36 BIOTECHNOLOGY AND BIOENGINEERING, VOL. 72, NO. 1, JANUARY 5, 2001

OPTIMAL OPERATION

In industrial (or municipal) practice, the biofilter is typically

operated with constant feed flow rates and an uncontrolled

inlet concentration. However, this work investigates how

biofilter operation can be improved by dynamically adjust-

ing the feed flow rate.

Problem Formulation

The performance criterion to be maximized is the treatment

efficiency defined as the amount of substrate removed per

unit of cycle time. This can be expressed as the integral over

time of the difference in the amounts of substrate entering

and leaving the reactor divided by the cycle time. The op-

timization problem can be formulated as follows:

max

Qt,S

in

t

J =

1

t

f

0

t

f

QtS

in

S

out

tdt

s.t.

S

t

= F

1

B

t

= F

2

max

z

Bz,t

f

= B

max

(8)

S

out

t S

lim

Q

lb

Qt Q

ub

where [Q

lb

, Q

ub

] is the range of admissible values for the

feed flowrate, and S

lim

the maximum acceptable effluent

concentration. The limit, S

lim

, is prescribed by the legal

requirements for discharge of cleaned wastewater into the

environment. F

1

, F

2

denote the right-hand sides of system

Eq. (1).

This problem formulation reflects a possible economic

objective in that a time-efficient wastewater treatment,

which guarantees a required effluent concentration quality,

is sought. In other words, one seeks the type of operation

that achieves, with a given installation, the highest through-

put. This performance criterion is independent of the spe-

cific operational costs, because it was assumed that pump-

ing the wastewater through the column does not vary sig-

nificantly with the velocity as long as the flow rate is kept

in realistic ranges. Other choices of optimization criteria are

possible and have been discussed elsewhere (Benthack et

al., 1996).

Numerical Optimization

The optimal control problem [Eq. (8)] is first solved nu-

merically using control vector parameterization (CVP)

(Ray, 1989). The following lower and upper bounds are

fixed for the numerical optimization: 1 m

3

/h Q 8 m

3

/h.

The maximal outlet concentration is given by S

lim

0.1 kg

(COD)/m

3

. The input variable, Q(t), is parameterized using

piecewise linear approximations on n elements. This results

in a nonlinear programming problem in (n + 1) decision

variables. At every iteration of the optimization algorithm,

system Eq. (1) have to be integrated numerically. Sequential

quadratic programming (SQP) is used as the nonlinear pro-

gramming method. It has been reported to be one of the

most efficient algorithms for nonlinear optimization (Edgar

and Himmelblau, 1988).

Because the problem is formulated as a free terminal time

problem, the length of the simulation is not known a priori.

This difficulty can be resolved as follows: (i) either the

dynamic model is normalized with respect to time, and the

terminal time becomes an additional decision variable; or

(ii) the simulation terminal time is chosen as an upper bound

on any possible terminal time. The latter approach has the

disadvantage that the problem can become numerically ill-

conditioned because the last element might not contribute to

the objective function. Nevertheless, the second approach

was used here, and the problem of ill-conditioning was cir-

cumvented by imposing that the last element be so long that

it will always start before the operation cycle is over.

The optimal input found by this method is shown in Fig-

ure 4. The feed flow rate increases with time, which is

logical as there is more biomass inside the reactor and hence

the treatment capacity increases. The substrate outlet con-

centration is near its upper limit, S

lim

(Fig. 5).

Characterization

The numerical optimization results have been validated ana-

lytically (Benthack, 1997) and can be summarized as fol-

lows:

For the range of parameters used in this study, the optimal

solution is determined by the constraints: During the fill-

ing phase, the feed flow rate should be low enough such

that the first effluent to come out does not exceed the

concentration limit. Later, the feed flow rate is such that

Figure 3. Biomass concentration profiles for Q 3 m

3

/h, first profile at

t 1 h.

BENTHACK ET AL.: OPTIMAL OPERATING STRATEGY FOR FIXED-BED BIOREACTORS 37

the outlet substrate concentration is at its upper limit,

S

lim

.

The complete operation cycle can be divided in two opera-

tional phases. These are: (i) the filling phase; and (ii) the

operation at S

out

(t) S

lim

. During the filling phase, a sub-

strate outlet concentration cannot be measured because no

liquid has yet reached the reactor outlet. The feed flow rate

is at a low value, so that the first liquid portion that leaves

the reactor will not exceed the upper limit, S

lim

.

In a typical dynamic optimization problem, the optimal

input is time-varying, which is also true in this example, due

to different biomass concentrations in the reactor. What is of

interest is that the optimum is characterized by being on the

path constraint S

out

S

lim

. This is the case despite varia-

tions in substrate inlet concentration and biomass growth

rate. Thus, the dynamic optimization problem can be trans-

formed into a tracking problem, which can be implemented

using feedback. However, toward the end of the batch, it

may also be that the biomass concentration inside the reac-

tor is so high that, even with Q(t) Q

ub

, S

out

(t) < S

lim

. This

does not occur with the parameter values chosen here. How-

ever, if such a situation occurs, the optimal solution is lo-

cated at the boundary Q(t) Q

ub

.

Feedback Implementation

The characterization of the optimal solution on the bound-

aries of the feasible region indicates the possibility of a

feedback-based implementation. The feed flow rate will be

adjusted to satisfy the quality constraint. Furthermore, it is

assumed that the substrate outlet concentration is the only

on-line measurement available for feedback implementa-

tion. It is important to note that such a feedback implemen-

tation keeps the system at its optimal operating point (on the

boundary S

out

S

lim

), despite variations in substrate inlet

concentration and biomass growth rate, rejecting these

variations by the use of feedback.

During the filling phase, a priori control must be applied

because there is no output measurement available until the

column is filled with water. Due to model mismatch, imple-

menting the off-line-calculated optimal feed flow rate may

result in the first effluent exiting the column, violating the

quality requirement. Hence, to meet this quality constraint

during the short initial phase, a slightly smaller feed flow

rate is implemented.

After the filling phase is over, the feed flow rate should

be adjusted such that S

out

S

lim

using a simple feedback

controller. The feedback loop is depicted in Figure 6. S

out

is

the measured and controlled variable that is supposed to

follow its setpoint, S

lim

, and Q is the manipulated variable.

Toward the end of the operation it might happen that Q

ub

instead of S

lim

becomes limiting owing to the increased

treatment capacity of the reactor. For the feedback imple-

mentation, it is sufficient to limit the feed flow rate at its

upper bound in order to account for this modification of the

optimal control profile.

In Figures 7 and 8, the input profile and the profile of the

effluent concentration are shown. The PI controller param-

eters, K

p

8 and T

i

0.55 h, were tuned in order to

minimize the deviation from setpoint during the whole op-

eration cycle with a realistic sampling time T 30 min.

Input and output profiles oscillate initially, resulting in rela-

tively small violations of the effluent quality. The oscilla-

tions can be explained by the fact that the system has a delay

caused by the transport of liquid from the entry to the exit

Figure 4. Optimal feed flow rate.

Figure 5. Substrate outlet concentration.

Figure 6. Optimization of the biofilter by tracking the path constraint

S

out

S

lim

using a PI controller.

38 BIOTECHNOLOGY AND BIOENGINEERING, VOL. 72, NO. 1, JANUARY 5, 2001

of the bioreactor. It is well known that PI controllers might

have problems handling systems with significant delays

(strom and Hagglund, 1995).

CONCLUSIONS

The dynamic model of an aerobic fixed-bed bioreactor

based on material balances for substrate and biomass was

developed. Its main characteristics were analyzed through

simulation. The dynamic optimization of this reactor was

addressed with the objective of maximizing the wastewater

treatment efficiency of the reactor, which is equivalent to

maximizing the global substrate removal rate over an op-

eration cycle. The feed flow rate was considered as the

manipulated variable. The optimal control problem was

solved numerically using control vector parameterization. It

was found that the optimal feed flow rate has to be adjusted

such that the required effluent quality is met precisely.

A feedback implementation of the optimal trajectories

has been proposed. After the filling period, the path con-

straint was tracked by an optimizing feedback loop. It was

shown that PI control is a very efficient way of implement-

ing the optimal biofilter operation. During the filling period

the reactor is operated in open-loop manner (e.g. using the

off-line-calculated optimal profile). To render the operation

less sensitive to model mismatch, it may be of interest to

explore robust optimization methods by explicitly account-

ing for model uncertainties in the calculation of the optimal

feed profile during the filling period.

The aeration rate was considered sufficiently high to en-

sure aerobic conditions throughout the reactor during the

whole operation cycle, because anaerobic conditions would

significantly deteriorate the substrate removal capacity of

the bioreactor. On the other hand, if the objective were to

minimize the operational costs, it would be of interest to

allow manipulation of the aeration rate, which represents the

most cost-intensive part of the operation, in order to obtain

a compromise between good performance and low operat-

ing costs. The first steps toward the solution of this optimi-

zation problem would be to include the material balance of

dissolved oxygen in the bioreactor model and to account

explicitly for its influence on the substrate removal rate.

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40 BIOTECHNOLOGY AND BIOENGINEERING, VOL. 72, NO. 1, JANUARY 5, 2001

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