Optimizing denitrification at Austin’s Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant
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In natural waters, high concentrations of ammonia are toxic to fish, and the oxidation of ammonia to nitrate (NO₃-) consumes large quantities of dissolved oxygen. The influent to municipal wastewater treatment plants in the United States typically contains approximately 40 mg/L of ammonia nitrogen (NH₃₋ N). Almost all of this ammonia must be removed in a wastewater treatment process before the effluent is discharged to the natural environment. This dramatic decrease is accomplished by the aerobic biological process of nitrification, in which ammonia is oxidized to nitrate Biological denitrification is an anoxic biological process in which nitrate (NO₃-) is reduced to nitrogen gas (N₂). Denitrification can increase the alkalinity in activated sludge aeration basins and decrease the concentration of filamentous organisms. The staff at the City of Austin Water Utility decided to implement a denitrification system at Walnut Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to control filamentous organisms and increase the alkalinity within the aeration basins. The denitrification configuration that the staff implemented was unconventional because no structural changes were made to the aeration basins to encourage denitrification. However, the system functioned well and allowed operators to turn off one of the two air blowers, which saves the plant a significant amount of energy. The current operation has occasional problems, where the alkalinity in the aeration basin decreases or the effluent ammonia increases. When the alkalinity decreases to the point where the pH drops to near 6.0, operators are forced to add chemicals to increase the alkalinity. When the effluent ammonia increases to near the permitted concentration (2.0 mg NH₃-N/L),operators are forced to turn back on the second blower which eliminates the anoxic zone. These problems occur most often during the winter, when the wastewater is the coldest. The wastewater temperature at Walnut Creek varies from a high of 30°C during the summer to a low of 18°C during the winter. The goal of this research was the identification of ways to make the operation more robust which would prevent the need for chemical addition and minimize the use of the second blower. Laboratory-scale reactors were operated to assess possible improvements that could be made to the operation and configuration of the denitrification system at Walnut Creek. The data observed in the laboratory scale experiments showed that the population of denitrifying bacteria limits denitrification and is especially important during the winter. Increasing the solids retention time to 20 days appeared to be the best way to increase the population of denitrifying bacteria and improve denitrification. Improvements can also be made by increasing the volume of the anoxic zone. Increasing the volume of wastewater and biomass recycled will most likely not benefit denitrification until other improvements have been made. Recommendations to the City of Austin Water Utility include the following: 1) increase the solids retention time at Walnut Creek, 2) Increase the volume of the anoxic zone, 3) Separate the anoxic zone from the aerobic section of each aeration basin, 4) During the winter, operate the flow equalization basins to reduce the dissolved oxygen entering the anoxic zone, 5) Continually mix some of the effluent from the aeration basins with the primary effluent in the flow equalization basins.