The relative strengths of membrane bioreactors (MBR) versus conventional activated sludge (CAS) processes have long been debated, but never compared systematically at full scale. To this end, we monitored full-scale wastewater treatment performance and mixed-liquor characteristics (sludge biomass, extracellular polymeric substances (EPS), supernatant with molecular weight and hydrophilic/hydrophobic distribution) for parallel MBR and CAS (via oxidation ditch - OD), for a year. Ammonia and suspended solids were better removed by MBR; temperature affected ammonia removal in OD. At low temperatures, sludge settlement declined in both processes, but solid-liquid separation via membrane filtration continued, although the membrane fouled. EPS characteristics were similar, and organic components in EPS and supernatant varied seasonally, in both processes. MBR had a lower production rate, but higher concentration, of supernatant organics and accumulated large molecular-weight polysaccharides. Ammonia removal was correlated with tightly bound proteinaceous EPS. Polysaccharides, in loosely bound EPS and supernatant, were responsible for effective settlement (OD), and membrane fouling (MBR). These results demonstrate how mixed liquor intermediates process and performance, and that performance depends on effective solid-liquid separation. MBRs excel when stringent requirements for pollutant-removal and extreme environmental conditions exist. The much cheaper OD remains competitive under less demanding conditions.
- Conventional activated sludge
- Membrane bioreactor
- Mixed liquor characteristics
- Seasonal variation
- Wastewater treatment performance