Sewage Sludge Treatment
Anaerobic digestion is a bacterial process that is carried out in the absence of oxygen. The process can either be thermophilic digestion in which sludge is fermented in tanks at a temperature of 55°C or mesophilic, at a temperature of around 36°C. Though allowing shorter retention time, thus smaller tanks, thermophilic digestion is more expensive in terms of energy consumption for heating the sludge.
Anaerobic digestion generates biogas with a high proportion of methane that may be used to both heat the tank and run engines or microturbines for other on-site processes. In large treatment plants sufficient energy can be generated in this way to produce more electricity than the machines require. The methane generation is a key advantage of the anaerobic process. Its key disadvantage is the long time required for the process (up to 30 days) and the high capital cost.
Under laboratory conditions it is possible to directly generate useful amounts of electricity from organic sludge using naturally occurring electrochemically active bacteria. Potentially, this technique could lead to an ecologically positive form of power generation, but in order to be effective such a microbial fuel cell must maximize the contact area between the effluent and the bacteria-coated anode surface, which could severely hamper throughout.
Aerobic digestion is a bacterial process occurring in the presence of oxygen. Under aerobic conditions, bacteria rapidly consume organic matter and convert it into carbon dioxide. Once there is a lack of organic matter, bacteria die and are used as food by other bacteria. This stage of the process is known as endogenous respiration. Solids reduction occurs in this phase. Because the aerobic digestion occurs much faster than anaerobic digestion, the capital costs of aerobic digestion are lower. However, the operating costs are characteristically much greater for aerobic digestion because of energy costs for aeration needed to add oxygen to the process.
When a liquid sludge is produced, further treatment may be required to make it suitable for final disposal. Typically, sludges are thickened (dewatered) to reduce the volumes transported off-site for disposal. Processes for reducing water content include lagooning in drying beds to produce a cake that can be applied to land or incinerated; pressing, where sludge is mechanically filtered, often through cloth screens to produce a firm cake; and centrifugation where the sludge is thickened by centrifugally separating the solid and liquid. Sludges can be disposed of by liquid injection to land or by disposal in a landfill.