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What is an MABR?

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‘MABR’ stands for ‘membrane aerated biofilm reactor’. An MABR is an alternative aerobic biological treatment process to MBRs (membrane bioreactors).

An MABR is an example of a ‘fixed film’ process - like a trickling filter - as opposed to a purely suspended growth process, i.e. one based on activated sludge (as is the case for the MBR).

In an MABR, the membrane (often a hollow fibre) is used as an alternative aerator, rather than for biomass separation. As such, it does not provide the highly-clarified effluent of a classical MBR: an additional membrane separation stage would be required for this.

The term ‘MABR’ was first introduced in the 1990s by Mike Semmens of the University of Minnesota, and was originally based on a pure oxygen-fed technology. The MABR allows almost all the oxygen introduced to the bioreactor via the membrane to be utilised by the micro-organisms since it is introduced in molecular (or ‘bubbleless’) form. Because a biofilm is formed on the membrane itself, the oxygen is delivered directly into the biomass. The usual mass transfer limitations of a conventional fine bubble diffuser aerator (FBDA), limiting the standard oxygen transfer efficiency (SOTE) to somewhere between 10 and 40%, therefore no longer apply.

While the membrane provides greatly increased aeration efficiency, and commensurately reduced aeration energy costs, the process is hampered by the high cost of the membrane, compared to a conventional FBDA, and the loss of mixing provided by the air bubbles introduced by the FBDA. Also, as with conventional HF membranes, the membranes can clog as a result of the biofilm growth on the membrane surface, adding to the process operational complexity.

The MABR still has a mixed liquor of suspended particles, as with other fixed film processes such the moving bed bioreactor (MBBR), but at lower concentration than the MBR. Biological treatment is achieved both by the biofilm and by the suspended flocs.

This MABR process has only been commercially developed and implemented at full scale since around around 2015, limiting number of established reference sites.


Although MABRs have only been commercialised since around 2015, the process was originally studied in the 1990s (Pankhania et al, 2004; Brindle et al, 1998,1999). In fact, the term 'MABR' was first introduced around 30 years ago by Mike Semmens of the University of Minnesota.

The original work was based on a pure oxygen-fed technology, which attracted the interest of gas suppliers like Air Products. For this mode of operation almost all of the oxygen introduced to the bioreactor via the membrane was found to be utilised by the microorganisms forming the biofilm at the membrane surface, the oxygen seeming to go straight into biomass (Brindle et al, 1998). More recent work at bench scale, based on air rather than pure oxygen, indicates a reduction of up to 85% in process aeration energy compared with conventional fine bubble diffusion (Castrillo et al, 2019).


Brindle K., Stephenson T., & Semmens M.J. (1999) Pilot-plant treatment of a high-strength brewery wastewater using a membrane-aeration bioreactor. Water Environment Research 71(6) 1197-1204.

Brindle K., Stephenson T., & Semmens M.J. (1998). Nitrification and oxygen utilisation in a membrane aeration bioreactor. Journal of Membrane Science 144(1-2) 197-209.

Castrillo, M., Díez-Montero, R., Esteban-García, A.L., Tejero, I. (2019). Mass transfer enhancement and improved nitrification in MABR through specific membrane configuration. Water Research 152 1-11

Pankhania M., Stephenson T., Semmens M.J. (1994). Hollow fibre bioreactor for wastewater treatment using bubbleless membrane aeration. Water Research 28(10) 2233-2236.


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About this page

'What is an MABR?' was written by Simon Judd

This page was last updated on 28 May 2021


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