Research and technology transfer in wastewater management

The LEQUIA research group consolidated its lines of research after defending five doctoral theses in 2011. This research group’s expertise is in one of the areas of strategic specialization of the e-MTA Campus: water.

Research groups define a work strategy and then follow it. They pursue a precise aim which, far from getting smaller because of the adding up of more and more knowledge, it becomes bigger and bigger. That is because the purpose is not to know everything about something, to assure a precise object of study, but to get as far away as possible from ignorance. The researchers of the LEQUIA (Laboratory of Chemical and Environmental Engineering) are preferential followers of a similar discipline and, after more than fifteen years of research in the area of wastewater management, they find it is an increasingly large field of work. Its research activity has been divided into several areas of expertise and it shows in its results, such as those of last year, when five theses were defended within the group, four in the field of design, operation and control of advanced processes for the biological treatment of urban and industrial wastewater, and another one in the study of adsorption or oxidation processes for the treatment of effluents and effluent gases.

Different techniques with the same purpose
In the area of operation and control of advanced processes, the group has intensified the research on the optimization and improvement of wastewater management, defending the doctoral theses of Hèctor Monclús, Giuliana Ferrero, Marta Coma and Maël Ruscalleda. Respectively, the first two help us understand membrane bioreactors (MBR) more deeply and the other ones go more deeply in the application of biological processes which, like the former thesis, pursue the suppression of organic matter and nutrients occuring in urban and industrial wastewater.

Regarding the improvement of MBR, research works have anlysed how to develop a decision support system (DSS) towards a global control of membranes. Monclús, whose thesis has been directed by Ignasi Rodríguez Roda and Joaquim Comas, has focused on the development of indicators or sensors which are capable of providing, automatising and controling the filtration process in a comprehensive way with the biological processes taking place in the reactor. In addition, the research has made it possible to design a tool that facilitates the automatic control and supervision of MBR. The highlight of Ferrero’s thesis, also directed by Roda and Comas, is the design of a new robust system based on permeability trends which, at the same time, can reduce aeration in proportion to the permeate flow.

The importance of the research performed by Monclús and Ferrero lies in the fact that they have provided new solutions to the need to improve the quality of the water obtained, so that it can be reused, and in their confirmation that membrane technology is a more attractive option than conventional ones to achieve this purpose, since it makes it possible to obtain high quality effluents with very low concentrations of suspended solids. So at the same time these pieces of work  solve the problem of this technology having certain limitations, such as the high cost of membrane maintenance and the high energy consumption it involved. In short, the conclusions of both research works prove that MBR are a very good solution in wastewater reuse. The systems developed by the researchers of the LEQUIA group have contributed to further enhance the attractiveness of MBR. Perhaps for that reason the OHL Medio Ambiente, INIMA, SAU group has contributed to the research and, thanks to the research of the group members,  shares a patent with the University of Girona.

However, the theses of Coma and Ruscalleda deal with the improvment of effluent quality  from a biological perspective. In her thesis, “Biological nutrient removal in SBR Technology: from floccular to granular sludge” (directed by J.Colprim and Sebastià Puig), Marta Coma has developed a strategy that makes it possible to compact microorganisms which, in an initial state, are found in the form of flocs of different sizes, and this causes an acceleration in precipitation. The procedure facilitates the separation of activated sludge from treated water and thus shortens the period of sedimentation. The time gained will be used in the stage of the reaction of the process. On the other hand, the granular technology developed by Coma enables the simultaneous processes in a single granule thanks to the diffusion of oxygen and nutrients inside the aggregates, which reduces energy consumption in aeration and external doses of reagents.

Maël Ruscalleda’s thesis, which also deals with biological processes, and which has been directed by Jesús Colprim and Marilós Balaguer, has taken a further step in the use of Anammox autotroph bacteria, altready dealt with in a previous thesis defended by Helio López, who is also a member of  LEQUIA. Ruscalleda has combined a process of partial nitrification and Anammox and has obtained a viable alternative for the biological treatment of leachates from municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills that has been registered under the name PANAMMOX. Over the next two years CESPA, the company with which the LEQUIA has collaborated for over ten years, and thanks to competitive aid from the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, will launch the first plant for the demonstration of the PANAMMOX technology applied to the treatment of landfill leachates.

Activated carbons: the third way
The study of adsorption-oxidation processes of activated carbons is another research line in the group in which there have been changes. They have been provided by Alba Anfruns in a thesis directed by Maria Martín and Miguel A. Montes, when she has proved -at laboratory scale- the removal capacity showed by the adsorbents obtained from the chemical activation of sewage sludge with alkaline hydroxides. In fact this results are comparable to those obtained with commercial activated carbons, but they involve a significant cost reduction. Also she has analyzed different methods for the regeneration of activated carbons and has suggested a regeneration treatment with hydrogen peroxide, which combines the regeneration of activated carbons with the destruction on the spot of contaminants adsorbed.

The five research works set out here, all carried out by researchers of the LEQUIA group, aim at improving the treatment processes of both industrial and urban wastewater, and also of the by-products generated by this treatment. Ultimately, they seek to contribute to the optimization of wastewater treatment processes, bearing in mind aspects like quality, energy efficiency and waste valorization, which is one of the research goals for which the University of Girona was awarded the Campus of International Excellence, the e-MTA.

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