In this study, the properties of unstable and stable flocs were investigated under the steady operation of a membrane bioreactor (MBR). The extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) composition, surface charge, and hydrophobicity of unstable and stable flocs were examined and compared. Interfacial interactions of the membrane with unstable flocs, unstable flocs themselves, and unstable and stable flocs were assessed using the extended Derjaguin–Landau–Verwey–Overbeek (XDLVO) models. Cake layer resistance was found to contribute more than 80% of total resistance under steady operating conditions. Compared with stable flocs, unstable flocs possessed a higher level of EPS, more diverse protein, more negative charge, weaker hydrophobicity, and higher fouling potential. Thermodynamic analyses showed that unstable flocs had a higher adhesive strength (− 63.4 mJ/m2) with the membrane, lower self-cohesive strength (− 18.3 mJ/m2), and higher cohesive strength (− 54.3 mJ/m2) with stable flocs. Therefore, some unstable flocs remained on the membrane surface to form the cake layer due to their poor cohesion strength.
- Extracellular polymeric substances
- Interaction energy
- Membrane bioreactor
- Membrane fouling potential
- Sludge flocs