Sucking air

08 February 2012

Simon Judd

Simon Judd

Author Bio

Simon Judd, author of The MBR Book, Watermaths, and Industrial MBRs, offers observations on membrane technology. Contact Simon at

Regardless of the manifest benefits offered by MBR technology with respect to the amazingly high water quality produced, it’s hard to get away from the not-unwarranted perception that they are too expensive to buy, use too much energy, and present a whole host of operational problems. The recent survey ( has once again highlighted the challenge posed by membrane clogging, perceived as being attributable to insufficient screening, as well as over ambitious design fluxes, poor air distribution and, in the case of industrial effluents, membrane fouling and cleaning. Moreover, it’s reasonable to presume these things to be inter-related, as the article suggests.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was perhaps a mistake not to make this year’s survey open-ended, as the original one was. It seems almost certain that, were this to have been the case, at least a few respondents would have mentioned the other “f” word – foaming. Indeed, a survey conducted by Aalborg University a few years ago indicated that a large number of MBR installations contained high levels filamentous bacteria, which is hardly likely to ameliorate foaming problems. Given that MBRs are more vigorously aerated than conventional activated sludge processes, foaming is inevitably exacerbated. It is also unfortunate that filamentous bacteria generate a sludge which is more hydrophobic, and thus more highly fouling.

Given the above, and in particular the key issue of energy demand, it is perhaps no surprise that there is increasing interest being shown in anaerobic MBRs, where all aeration distribution and energy demand issues are dismissed at a stroke. Unfortunately, anaerobic flocculant biomass is significantly more fouling in nature than the aerobic stuff, yielding rather modest fluxes. This is great news for the membrane suppliers, since it necessarily increases the membrane area demanded. For the purchaser, the cost benefit of a reduced operational energy demand has to be weighed against the increased capital cost and process complexity. Currently, anaerobic processes are only considered viable at high organic concentrations, and the conventional anaerobic MBRs (anMBRs) are sidestream in configuration with high pumping energies (although, obviously, zero aeration demand). Immersed anMBRs (aniMBRs) potentially offer lower energy demands, but maintaining membrane cleanliness becomes a serious bottleneck if air scouring cannot be used. Nonetheless, a rudimentary cost benefit analysis ( suggests that aniMBRs may be cost competitive with conventional aerobic MBRs at COD concentrations above 1100 mg/L.

So, how close are we to a viable aniMBR technology? Such installations already exist for high-strength industrial effluents, though they are far outnumbered by the sidestream-configured MBRs. The challenge of ensuring viability of aniMBRs for comparatively low-strength and low-temperature feedwaters is considerable, and the limitation imposed by fouling is just one of the constraints faced. It would be brave to predict that aniMBRs will become the municipal wastewater treatment technology of choice in 20 years – when energy costs have presumably hit astronomical levels. Equally, it would be foolish to write them off. I should know: no-one was more fervent in dismissing anMBRs than myself 8-10 years ago. And, as is so often the case, no-one is more zealous than the converted.

‘The MBR Site’ is a trading division of Judd and Judd Ltd, a company registered in England and Wales, registered number 8082403.

Registered office: Suite 2, Douglas House, 32-34 Simpson Road, Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, MK1 1BA, United Kingdom. Email:

Banner image: full treatment plant for pharmaceutical wastewater in Taizhou, Linhai Park, Zhejiang Province, China, including Shanghai MEGAVISION  flat sheet UF membrane modules in two MBR units. Image courtesy of VALORSABIO, Lda.

Image credits:

– Image for our Chinese largest plants 全球最大的MBR项目 homepage link: Image supplied by Apex Environmental
– Image for our Consultants and Contractors homepage link: Image supplied by Ovivo USA, LLC.

Disclaimer: The information given on this website is reproduced in good faith. No liability is accepted for errors or omissions. The MBR Site does not endorse any products, services, organisations, events or any other listing included in this site. You are strongly advised to check all information, including specifications and installation details, before acting on any information given in this website. The MBR Site links to third-party websites – note that we are not responsible for the content of third-party websites and third-party websites are visited at your own risk. Please read our terms and conditions and privacy policy. Use of this website indicates acceptance of these conditions.

This website is designed for modern browsers – if you have problems viewing our website, you may wish to upgrade your browser.