Long term operation of a phototrophic biological nutrient removal system: Impact of CO2 concentration and light exposure on process performance

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The utilization of non-aerated microalgae-bacterial consortia for phototrophic biological nutrient removal (photo-BNR) has emerged as an alternative to conventional wastewater treatment. Photo-BNR systems are operated under transient illumination, with alternating dark-anaerobic, light-aerobic and dark-anoxic conditions. A deep understanding of the impact of operational parameters on the microbial consortium and respective nutrient removal efficiency in photo-BNR systems is required. The present study evaluates, for the first time, the long-term operation (260 days) of a photo-BNR system, fed with a COD:N:P mass ratio of 7.5:1:1, to understand its operational limitations. In particular, different CO2 concentrations in the feed (between 22 and 60 mg C/L of Na2CO3) and variations of light exposure (from 2.75 h to 5.25 h per 8 h cycle) were studied to determine their impact on key parameters, like oxygen production and availability of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), on the performance of anoxic denitrification by polyphosphate accumulating organisms. Results indicate that oxygen production was more dependent on the light availability than on the CO2 concentration. Also, under operational conditions with a COD:Na2CO3 ratio of 8.3 mg COD/mg C and an average light availability of 5.4 ± 1.3 W h/g TSS, no internal PHA limitation was observed, and 95 ± 7%, 92 ± 5% and 86 ± 5% of removal efficiency could be achieved for phosphorus, ammonia and total nitrogen, respectively. 81 ± 1.7% of the ammonia was assimilated into the microbial biomass and 19 ± 1.7% was nitrified, showing that biomass assimilation was the main N removal mechanism taking place in the bioreactor. Overall, the photo-BNR system presented a good settling capacity (SVI ∼60 mL/g TSS) and was able to remove 38 ± 3.3 mg P/L and 33 ± 1.7 mg N/L, highlighting its potential for achieving wastewater treatment without the need of aeration.

Original languageEnglish
Article number117490
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2023


  • Algae for nutrients removal
  • Anoxic systems
  • Denitrifying polyphosphate accumulating organisms (DPAOs)
  • Microalgae-bacterial systems
  • Photosynthetic microorganisms
  • Phototrophic biological nutrient removal (photo-BNR)


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