Monthly Archives: May 2016

The chemistry of sewage treatment

The first thing to know about sewage is that it’s mostly water and only about 250 ppm solids. That is, if you boiled down a pot of sewage, only about 1/40 of 1% of it would remain as solids at the bottom of the pot. There would be some dried poop, some bits of lint and soap, the remains of potato peelings… Mostly, the sewage is water, and mostly it would have boiled away. The second thing to know, is that the solids, the bio-solids, are a lot like soil but better: more valuable, brown gold if used right. While our county mostly burns and landfills the solids remnant of our treated sewage, the wiser choice would be to convert it to fertilizer. Here is a comparison between the composition of soil and bio-solids.

The composition of soil and the composition of bio-solid waste. biosolids are like soil, just better.

The composition of soil and the composition of bio-solid waste. biosolids are like soil, just better.

Most of Oakland’s sewage goes to Detroit where they mostly dry and burn it, and land fill the rest. These processes are expensive and engineering- problematic. It takes a lot of energy to dry these solids to the point where they burn (they’re like really wet wood), and even then they don’t burn nicely. As shown above, the biosolids contain lots of sulfur and that makes combustion smelly. They also contain nitrate, and that makes combustion dangerous. It’s sort of like burning natural gun powder.

The preferred solution is partial combustion (oxidation) at room temperature by bacteria followed by conversion to fertilizer. In Detroit we do this first stage of treatment, the slow partial combustion by bacteria. Consider glucose, a typical carbohydrate,

-HCOH- + O–> CO+ H2O.    ∆G°= -114.6 kcal/mol.

The value of ∆G°, is relevant as a determinate of whether the reaction will proceed. A negative value of ∆G°, as above, indicates that the reaction can progress substantially to completion at standard conditions of 25°C and 1 atm pressure. In a sewage plant, many different carbohydrates are treated by many different bacteria (amoebae, paramnesia, and lactobacilli), and the temperature is slightly cooler than room, about 10-15°C, but this value of ∆G° suggests that near total biological oxidation is possible.

The Detroit plant, like most others, do this biological oxidation treatment using either large stirred tanks, of million gallon volume or so, or in flow reactors with a large fraction of cellular-material returning as recycle. Recycle is needed also in the stirred tank process because of the low solid content. The reaction is approximately first order in oxygen, carbohydrate, and bacteria. Thus a 50% cell recycle more or less doubles the speed of the reaction. Air is typically bubbled through the reactor to provide the oxygen, but in Detroit, pure oxygen is used. About half the organic carbon is oxidized and the remainder is sent to a settling pond. The decant (top) water is sent for “polishing” and dumped in the river, while the goop (the bottom) is currently dried for burning or carted off for landfill. The Holly, MI sewage plant uses a heterogeneous reactors for the oxidation: a trickle bed followed by a rotating disk contractor. These have higher bio-content and thus lower area demands and separation costs, but there is a somewhat higher capital cost.

A major component of bio-solids is nitrogen. Much of this in enters the form of urea, NH2-CO-NH2. In an oxidizing environment, bacteria turns the urea and other nitrogen compounds into nitrate. Consider the reaction the presence of washing soda, Na2CO3. The urea is turned into nitrate, a product suitable for gun powder manufacture. The value of ∆G° is negative, and the reaction is highly favorable.

NH2-CO-NH2 + Na2CO3 + 4 O2 –> 2 Na(NO3) + 2 CO2 + 2 H2O.     ∆G° = -177.5 kcal/mol

The mixture of nitrates and dry bio-solids is highly flammable, and there was recently a fire in the Detroit biosolids dryer. If we wished to make fertilizer, we’d probably want to replace the drier with a further stage of bio-treatment. In Wisconsin, and on a smaller scale in Oakland MI, biosolids are treated by higher temperature (thermophilic) bacteria in the absence of air, that is anaerobically. Anaerobic digestion produces hydrogen and methane, and produces highly useful forms of organic carbon.

2 (-HCOH-) –> COCH4        ∆G° = -33.7 Kcal/mol

3 (-HCOH-) + H2O –> -CH2COOH + CO2 +  2 1/2 H2        ∆G° = -21.9 kcal/mol

In a well-designed plant, the methane is recovered to provide heat to the plant, and sometimes to generate power. In Wisconsin, enough methane is produced to cook the fertilizer to sterilization. The product is called “Milorganite” as much of it comes from Milwaukee and much of the nitrate is bound to organics.

Egg-shaped, anaerobic biosolid digestors.

Egg-shaped, anaerobic biosolid digestors, Singapore.

The hydrogen could be recovered too, but typically reacts further within the anaerobic digester. Typically it will reduce the iron oxide in the biosolids from the brown, ferric form, Fe2O3, to black FeO.  In a reducing atmosphere,

Fe2O3 + H2 –> 2 FeO + H2O.

Fe2O3 is the reason leaves turn brown in the fall and is the reason that most poop is brown. FeO is the reason that composted soil is typically black. You’ll notice that swamps are filled with black goo, that’s because of a lack of oxygen at the bottom. Sulphate and phosphorous can be bound to ferrous iron and this is good for fertilizer. Generally you want the reduction reactions to go no further.

Weir dam on the river dour. Used to manage floods, increase residence time, and oxygenate the flow.

Weir dam on the river Dour in Scotland. Dams of this type increase residence time, and oxygenate the flow. They’re good for fish, pollution, and flooding.

When allowed to continue, the hydrogen produced by anaerobic digestion begins to reduce sulfate to H2S.

NaSO4 + 4.5 H2 –>  NaOH + 3H2O + H2S.

I’m running for Oakland county, MI water commissioner, and one of my aims is to stop wasting our biosolids. Oakland produces nearly 1000,000 pounds of dry biosolids per day. This is either a blessing or a curse depending on how we use it.

Another issue, Oakland county dumps unpasteurized, smelly black goo into Lake St. Clair every other week, whenever it rains more than one inch. I’d like to stop this by separating the storm and “sanitary” sewage. There is a capital cost, but it can save money because we’d no longer have to pay to treat our rainwater at the Detroit sewage plant. To clean the storm runoff, I’d use mini wetlands and weir dams to increase residence time and provide oxygen. Done right, it would look beautiful and would avoid the flash floods. It should also bring natural fish back to the Clinton River.

Robert Buxbaum, May 24 – Sept. 15, 2016 Thermodynamics plays a big role in my posts. You can show that, when the global ∆G is negative, there is an increase in the entropy of the universe.

Weird flow calculation

Here is a nice flow problem, suitable for those planning to take the professional engineers test. The problem concerns weir dams. These are dams with a notch in them, somethings rectangular, as below, but in this case a V-shaped notch. Weir dams with either sort of notch can be used to prevent flooding and improve the water, but they also provide a way to measure the flow of water during a flood. That’s the point of the problem below.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. These are thick, rectangular weirs.

A series of weir dams with rectangular weirs in Maine.

You’ve got a classic V weir on a dam, but it is not a knife-edge weir, nor is it rectangular or compound as in the picture at right. Instead it is nearly 90°, not very tall, and both the dam and weir have rounded leads. Because the weir is of non-standard shape, thick and rounded, you can not use the flow equation found in standard tables or on the internet. Instead, you decide to use a bucket and stopwatch to determine that the flow during a relatively dry period. You measure 0.8 gal/sec when the water height is 3″ in the weir. During the rain-storm some days later, you measure that there are 12″ of water in the weir. The flow is too great for you to measure with a bucket and stopwatch, but you still want to know what the flow is. Give a good estimate of the flow based on the information you have.

As a hint, notice that the flow in the V weir is self-similar. That is, though you may not know what the pattern of flow will be, you can expect it will be stretched the same for all heights.

As to why anyone would use this type of weir: they are easier to build and maintain than the research-standard, knife edge; they look nicer, and they are sturdier. Here’s my essay in praise of the use of dams. How dams on drains and rivers could help oxygenate the water, and to help increase the retention time to provide for natural bio-remediation.

If you’ve missed the previous problem, here it is: If you have a U-shaped drain or river-bed, and you use a small dam or weir to double the water height, what is the effect on water speed and average retention time. Work it out yourself, or go here to see my solution.

Robert Buxbaum. May 20-Sept 20, 2016. I’m running for drain commissioner. send me your answers to this problem, or money for my campaign, and win a campaign button. Currently, as best I can tell, there are no calibrated weirs or other flow meters on any of the rivers in the county, or on any of the sewers. We need to know because every engineering decision is based on the flow. Another thought: I’d like to separate our combined sewers and daylight some of our hidden drains.

Weir dams to slow the flow and save our lakes

As part of explaining why I want to add weir dams to the Red Run drain, and some other of our Oakland county drains, I posed the following math/ engineering problem: if a weir dam is used to double the depth of water in a drain, show that this increases the residence time by a factor of 2.8 and reduces the flow speed by 1/2.8. Here is my solution.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. Mine would be about as tall, but somewhat further apart.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. Mine would be about as tall, but wider and further apart. The dams provide oxygenation and hold back sludge.

Let’s assume the shape of the bottom of the drain is a parabola, e.g. y = x, and that the dams are spaced far enough apart that their volume is small compared to the volume of water. We now use integral calculus to calculate how the volume of water per mile, V is affected by water height:  V =2XY- ∫ y dx = 2XY- 2/3 X3 =  4/3 Y√Y. Here, capital Y is the height of water in the drain, and capital X is the horizontal distance of the water edge from the drain centerline. For a parabolic-bottomed drain, if you double the height Y, you increase the volume of water per mile by 2√2. That’s 2.83, or about 2.8 once you assume some volume to the dams.

To find how this affects residence time and velocity, note that the dam does not affect the volumetric flow rate, Q (gallons per hour). If we measure V in gallons per mile of drain, we find that the residence time per mile of drain (hours) is V/Q and that the speed (miles per hour) is Q/V. Increasing V by 2.8 increases the residence time by 2.8 and decreases the speed to 1/2.8 of its former value.

Why is this important? Decreasing the flow speed by even a little decreases the soil erosion by a lot. The hydrodynamic lift pressure on rocks or soil is proportional to flow speed-squared. Also, the more residence time and the more oxygen in the water, the more bio-remediation takes place in the drain. The dams slow the flow and promote oxygenation by the splashing over the weirs. Cells, bugs and fish do the rest; e.g. -HCOH- + O2 –> CO2 + H2O. Without oxygen, the fish die of suffocation, and this is a problem we’re already seeing in Lake St. Clair. Adding a dam saves the fish and turns the run into a living waterway instead of a smelly sewer. Of course, more is needed to take care of really major flood-rains. If all we provide is a weir, the water will rise far over the top, and the run will erode no better (or worse) than it did before. To reduce the speed during those major flood events, I would like to add a low bicycle path and some flood-zone picnic areas: just what you’d see on Michigan State’s campus, by the river.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 12, 2016. I’d also like to daylight some rivers, and separate our storm and toilet sewage, but those are longer-term projects. Elect me water commissioner.