Protozoa

Protozoa are secondary feeders in the activated sludge process (secondary as feeders, but nonetheless definitely important to the activated sludge process). Their principal function is to remove (eat or crop) dispersed bacteria and help to produce a clear process effluent. To help gain an appreciation for the role of protozoa in the activated sludge process, consider the following explanation.

The activated sludge process is typified by the successive development of protozoa and mature floc particles. This succession can be indicated by the type of dominant protozoa present. At the start of the activated process (or recovery from an upset condition), the amoebae dominate.

Note: Amoebae have very flexible cell walls and move by shifting fluids within the cell wall. Amoebae predominate during process startup or during recovery from severe plant upsets.

As the process continues uninterrupted or without upset, small populations of bacteria begin to grow in logarithmic fashion which, as the population increases, develop into mixed liquor. When this occurs, the flagellates dominate.

Note: Flagellated protozoa typically have single hair-like flagella, or "tails," that they use for movement. The flagellate predominates when the MLSS and bacterial populations are low and organic load is high. As the activated sludge gets older and denser, the flagellates decrease until they are seldom used.

When the sludge attains an age of about 3 days, lightly dispersed floc particles begin to form (flocculation converts fine solids into larger, more settleable solids), and bacteria increase. At this point, free-swimming ciliates dominate.

Note: The free-swimming ciliated protozoa have hair-like projections (cilia) that cover all or part of the cell. The cilia are used for motion and create currents that carry food to the organism. The free-swimming cili-ates are sometimes divided into two subcategories: free swimmers and crawlers. The free swimmers are usually seen moving through the fluid portion of the activated sludge, while the crawlers appear to be walking or grazing on the activated sludge solids. The free-swimming ciliated protozoa usually predominate when a large number of dispersed bacteria are present that can be used as food. Their predominance indicates a process nearing optimum conditions and effluent quality.

The process continues with floc particles beginning to stabilize, taking on irregular shapes, and beginning to show filamentous growth. At this stage, the crawling ciliates dominate. Eventually, mature floc particles develop and increase in size, and large numbers of crawling and stalked ciliates are present. When this occurs, the succession process has reached its terminal point. The succession of protozoan and mature floc particle development just described details the occurrence of phases of development in a step-by-step progression. Protozoan succession is also based on other factors, including dissolved oxygen and food availability.

Probably the best way to understand protozoan succession based on dissolved oxygen and food availability is to view the aeration basin of the wastewater treatment plant as a "stream within a container." By using the saprobity system to classify the various phases of the activated sludge process in relation to the self-purification process that takes place in a stream, we are able to identify a clear relationship between the two processes based on available dissolved oxygen and food supply. Any change in the relative numbers of bacteria in the activated sludge process has a corresponding change in the population of microorganisms. A decrease in bacteria increases competition among the protozoa and results in only the dominant groups of protozoa thriving.

The success or failure of protozoa to capture bacteria depends on several factors. Those with more advanced locomotion capability are able to capture more bacteria. Individual protozoan feeding mechanisms are also important in the competition for bacteria. At the beginning of the activated sludge process, amoebae and flagellates are the first protozoan groups to appear in large numbers. They can survive on smaller quantities of bacteria because their energy requirements are lower than other protozoan types. Because few bacteria are present, competition for dissolved substrates is low; however, as the bacteria population increases, these protozoa are not able to compete for the available food. This is when the next group of protozoa, the free-swimming protozoa, enter the scene.

The free-swimming protozoa take advantage of the large populations of bacteria because they are better equipped with food-gathering mechanisms than the amoebae and flagellates. The free swimmers are important for their insatiable appetites for bacteria and also in floc formation. They secrete polysaccharides and mucoproteins that are absorbed by bacteria, which makes the bacteria "sticky" through biological agglutination (biological gluing together); this allows them to stick together and, more importantly, to stick to floc. Thus, large quantities of floc are prepared for removal from secondary effluent and being returned to aeration basins or wasted. The crawlers and stalked ciliates succeed the free swimmers.

Note: Stalked ciliated protozoa are attached directly to the activated sludge solids by a stalk. In some cases, the stalk is rigid and fixed in place, while in others the organism can move (contract or expand the stalk) to change its position. The stalked ciliated protozoa normally have several cilia that are used to create currents that carry bacteria and organic matter to them. The stalked ciliated protozoa predominate when the dispersed bacteria population decreases and does not provide sufficient food for the free swimmers. Their predominance indicates a stable process, operating at optimum conditions.

The free swimmers are replaced in part because the increasing level of mature floc retards their movement. Additionally, the type of environment that is provided by the presence of mature floc is more suited to the needs of the crawlers and stalked ciliates. The crawlers and stalked ciliates also aid in floc formation by adding weight to floc particles, thus enabling removal.

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