Activated Sludge



Activated sludge is a process dealing with the treatment of sewage and industrial wastewaters. Atmospheric air or pure oxygen is bubbled through primary treated sewage (or industrial wastewater) combined with organisms to develop a biological floc which reduces the organic content of the sewage. The combination of raw sewage (or industrial wastewater) and biological mass is commonly known as Mixed Liquor. In all activated sludge plants, once the sewage (or industrial wastewater) has received sufficient treatment, excess mixed liquor is discharged into settling tanks and the treated supernatant is run off to undergo further treatment before discharge. Part of the settled material, the sludge, is returned to the head of the aeration system to re-seed the new sewage (or industrial wastewater) entering the tank. This fraction of the floc is called Return Activated Sludge (R.A.S.). Excess sludge which eventually accumulates beyond what is returned is called Waste Activated Sludge (W.A.S.). W.A.S is removed from the treatment process to keep the ratio of biomass to food supplied (sewage or wastewater) in balance. This is called the F:M ratio. W.A.S is stored away from the main treatment process in storage tanks and is further treated by digestion, either under anaerobic or aerobic conditions prior to disposal. Sometimes another term for W.A.S is S.A.S (Surplus Activated Sludge), both terms have the same meaning.

Activated sludge is also the name given to the active biological material produced by activated sludge plants and which affects all the purification processes. This material, which in healthy sludge is a brown floc, is largely composed off saprotrophic bacteria but also has an important protozoan flora mainly composed of amoebae, Spirotrichs, Peritrichs including Vorticellids and a range of other filter feeding species. Other important constituents include motile and sedentary Rotifers. In poorly managed activated sludge, a range of mucilaginous filamentous bacteria can develop including Sphaerotilus natans which produces a sludge that is difficult to settle and can result in the sludge blanket decanting over the weirs in the settlement tank to severely contaminate the final effluent quality. This material is often described as sewage fungus but true fungal communities are relatively uncommon.

In a sewage (or industrial wastewater) treatment plant, the activated sludge process can be used for one or several of the following purpose:

  • oxidising carbonaceous matter: biological matter.
  • oxidising nitrogeneous matter: mainly ammonium and nitrogen in biological materials.
  • removing phosphate.
  • driving off entrained gases carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrogen, etc.
  • generating a biological floc that is easy to settle.
  • generating a liquor low in dissolved or suspended material.


The activated sludge process was discovered by accident in Britain in 1913. Experiments on treating sewage in a draw-and-fill reactor (the precursor to today's sequencing batch reactor) produced a highly treated effluent. Believing that the sludge had been activated (in a similar manner to activated carbon) the process was named activated sludge. Not until much later was it realised that what had actually had occurred was a means to concentrate biological organisms, decoupling the liquid retention time (ideally, low, for a compact treatment system) from the solids retention time (ideally, fairly high, for an effluent low in BOD5 and ammonia.)

General principles

  • Raw water: water entering the system.
  • Mixed liquor: the mix of raw water and activated sludge.
  • Return activated sludge (R.A.S): activated sludge extracted from the system and mixed with raw water to form the mixed liquor.
  • Waste activated sludge (W.A.S.)/Surplus activated sludge (S.A.S.): excess activated sludge that is extracted from the system to be directed to sludge treatment.
  • Sludge age: the average time biological that the sludge stays in the system. In simpler words, it can be defined as the average age of bacteria in the system.
As shown in the diagram to the right, the general arrangement of an activated sludge process for removing carbonaceous pollution includes the following items:

  • Aeration tank where air (or oxygen) is injected in the mixed liquor.
  • Settling tank (usually referred to as "final clarifier" or "secondary settling tank") to allow the biological flocs to settle, thus separating the biological sludge from the clear treated water.
Treatment of nitrogenous matter or phosphate involves additional steps where the mixed liquor is left in anoxic condition (meaning that there is no residual dissolved oxygen).

Types of plants
There are a variety of types of activated sludge plants.These include :
Package plants
There are a wide range of other types of plants, often serving small communities or industrial plants that may use hybrid treatment processes often involving the use of aerobic sludge to treat the incoming sewage. In such plants the primary settlement stage of treatment may be omitted. In these plants, a biotic floc is created which provides the required substrate.
Package plants are commonly variants of extended aeration, to promote the 'fit & forget' approach required for small communities without dedicated operational staff. There are various standards to assist with their design.
Oxidation ditch
In some areas, where more land is available, sewage is treated in large round or oval ditches with one or more horizontal aerators typically called brush or disc aerators which drive the mixed liquor around the ditch and provide aeration] These are oxidation ditches, often referred to by manufacturer's trade names such as Pasveer, Orbal, or Carrousel. They have the advantage that they are relatively easy to maintain and are resilient to shock loads that often occur in smaller communities (i.e at breakfast time and in the evening).
Oxidation ditches are installed commonly as 'fit & forget' technology, with typical design parameters of a hydraulic retention time of 24 - 48 hours, and a sludge age of 12 - 20 days. This compares with nitrifying activated sludge plants having a retention time of 8 hours, and a sludge age of 8 - 12 days.
Deep Shaft
Where land is in short supply sewage may be treated by injection of oxygen into a pressured return sludge stream which is injected into the base of a deep columnar tank buried in the ground. Such shafts may be up to 100 metres deep and are filled with sewage liquor. As the sewage rises the oxygen forced into solution by the pressure at the base of the shaft breaks out as molecular oxygen providing a highly efficient source of oxygen for the activated sludge biota. The rising oxygen and injected return sludge provide the physical mechanism for mixing of the sewage and sludge. Mixed sludge and sewage is decanted at the surface and separated into supernatant and sludge components. The efficiency of deep shaft treatment can be high.
Surface aerators are commonly quoted as having an aeration efficiency of 0.5 - 1.5 kg O2/kWh, diffused aeration as 1.5 - 2.5 kg O2/KWh. Deep Shaft claims 5 - 8 kg O2/kWh.

However, the costs of construction are high. Deep Shaft has seen greatest uptake in Japan, because of the land area issues. Deep Shaft was developed by ICI, as a spin-off from their Pruteen process. In the UK it is found at three sites: Tilbury, Anglian water, treating a wastewater with a high industrial contribution; Southport, United Utilities, because of land space issues; and Billingham, ICI, again treating industrial effluent, and built (after the Tilbury shafts) by ICI to help the agent sell more.

DeepShaft is a patented, licensed, process. The licensee has changed several times and, currently (2007), it is Aker Kvaerner Engineering Services.

Surface-aerated basins

A Typical Surface-Aerated Basing (using motor-driven floating aerators)
Most biological oxidation processes for treating industrial wastewaters have in common the use of oxygen (or air) and microbial action. Surface-aerated basins achieve 80 to 90% removal of BOD with retention times of 1 to 10 days The basins may range in depth from 1.5 to 5.0 metres and utilize motor-driven aerators floating on the surface of the wastewater.
In an aerated basin system, the aerators provide two functions: they transfer air into the basins required by the biological oxidation reactions, and they provide the mixing required for dispersing the air and and for contacting the reactants (that is, oxygen, wastewater and microbes). Typically, the floating surface aerators are rated to deliver the amount of air equivalent to 1.8 to 2.7 kg O2/kWh. However, they do not provide as good mixing as is normally achieved in activated sludge systems and therefore aerated basins do not achieve the same performance level as activated sludge units.
Biological oxidation processes are sensitive to temperature and, between 0 °C and 40 °C, the rate of biological reactions increase with temperature. Most surface aerated vessels operate at between 4 °C and 32 °C.[7]
Aeration methods
Diffused Aeration

Fine bubble membrane diffusers in an aeration tank
Sewage liquor is run into deep tanks with diffuser blocks attached to the floor. These are like the diffuser blocks used in tropical fish tanks but on a much larger scale. Air is pumped through the blocks and the curtain of bubbles formed both oxygenates the liquor and also provide the necessary stirring action. Where capacity is limited or the sewage is unusually strong or difficult to treat, oxygen may be used instead of air. Typically, the air is generated by some type of blower or compressor.
Surface aerators (cones)
Vertically mounted tubes of up to 1 metre diameter extending from just above the base of a deep concrete tank to just below the surface of the sewage liquor. A typical shaft might be 10 metres high. At the surface end the tube is formed into a cone with helical vanes attached to the inner surface. When the tube is rotated, the vanes spin liquor up and out of the cones drawing new sewage liquor from the base of the tank. In many works each cone is located in a separate cell that can be isolated from the remaining cells if required for maintenance. Some works may have two cones to a cell and some large works may have 4 cones per cell.

» Back
Copyrights © 2011 ORION WATER