Linking hydraulic resistance to the physical structure of membrane biofilms
Gravity driven membrane (GDM) ultrafiltration is a continuous dead-end filtration process for potable and non-potable water production. GDM operates on the principle of tolerating biofilm development on the membranes surface for the benefit of minimum membrane maintenance, stable flux production, and improved permeate quality. The biological activity afforded by the tolerated biofilm allows degradation of foulants that would otherwise accumulate on the surface of the membrane, decreasing permeate flux. However, membrane biofilms are not without problems. The presence of a biofilm increases the hydraulic resistance, which exceeds the intrinsic resistance of the membrane, leading to low yet stable permeate flux. The purpose of the presented thesis is to evaluate what structural feature of the biofilm can exert a resistance to hydraulic passage and how hydraulic resistance is influenced by the biofilms mechanical response to changes in process operation (e.g., transmembrane pressure (TMP), cross-flow). Towards this goal, the approach taken to determine the link between hydraulic resistance and the biofilms structural and mechanical characteristics shall examine: (a) how different biofilm physical structures affect hydraulic resistance; (b) how compression affect physical structure and related hydraulic resistance; (c) how hydraulic resistance changes over the biofilms depth. A key advancement of the current study is evaluating the link between biofilm physical structure and resulting hydraulic resistance using in-situ and non-invasive methods for chemical, structural and mechanical characterization, using 2D confocal Raman microscopy and optical coherence tomography, respectively.
Results of the presented thesis indicate that the formation of GDM biofilms is influenced by the nutrient availability (carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus), which determined composition and micro-scale spatial distribution of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS). High concentrations of anionic polymers, homogeneously distributed in space, led to the formation of thin dense homogenous physical structures which had a higher hydraulic resistance. Low concentration of anionic polymers, heterogeneously distributed in space, led to the formation of thick heterogeneous physical structures with a low hydraulic resistance. Taken together, it is demonstrated that thicker heterogeneous structures imposed less hydraulic resistance than thin dense homogeneous structure, indicating density rather than thickness is the structural determinant of a biofilms hydraulic resistance.
The hydraulic resistance of membrane biofilms is also linked to their structural response to perpendicular and parallel flow. With increasing perpendicular flow, heterogeneous biofilms became irreversibly compressed, while homogeneous biofilms were reversibly compressed. Irreversible compression results from the reduction of the biofilm roughness and porosity and led to an irreversible increase in hydraulic resistance. With increasing hydraulic shear stress (flow parallel to the membrane), we demonstrated stratification in the physical structure, cohesion and hydraulic resistance of GDM biofilms. Detachment of a thick surface layer roughness had limited impact on hydraulic resistance due to retention of a cohesive base layer with a high hydraulic resistance.
The presented thesis provides a fundamental understanding of how hydraulic resistance is linked to a biofilms composition, physical structure and mechanical strength. Our evaluation of biofilm physical structure and hydraulic resistance in GDM systems has demonstrated that heterogeneous physical structures exert limited hydraulic resistance and have a low mechanical strength. Greater hydraulic resistance is exerted by thin dense base layer at the surface of the membrane. We suggest GDM membrane operators (a) maintain constant transmembrane pressure to avoided compaction of heterogeneous structure, (b) avoid hydraulic shear due to limited effect on resistance due to retention of thin and dense cohesive base layer and (c) focus on efforts to decrease the hydraulic resistance by increasing structural heterogeneity "in-place" by way of predation and/or nutrient enrichment.