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5.4 Thickening

Sludge contains a high concentration of solids, but its water content is still high. Combined primary and secondary sludge from an activated sludge treatment plant contains about 2 % solids and hence 98 % water. One kg of dry sludge is associated with 49 L of water. Thickening to 5 % solids means one kg of dry solids is associated with 19 L of water, thus 30 L of water has to be removed.

Thickening is carried out in a sedimentation tank or in a sedimentation pond (Figure 34). The latter is advantageous if land area is available, because the sludge can be allowed to settle over a much longer period and a higher solids content of the thickened sludge is achieved. The water removed from thickening needs treatment. It can be returned to the inlet of an off-site wastewater treatment plant, or in the case of sludge from on-site units by an aerobic treatment process such as lagooning.

5.5 Dewatering and drying

Dewatering aims to reduce the water content further so that the solids content of the sludge is about 20 % (equivalent to 1 kg dry sludge with 4 L of water). The sludge can then be handled like a solid. Dewatering can be done mechanically using a filter press (employing pressure or vacuum), or a centrifuge. It can also be done using drying beds. A drying bed consists of a 30 cm bed of sand with an under-drainage (Figure 35). Sludge is applied on the sand bed and is allowed to dry by evaporation and drainage of excess water over a period of several weeks depending on climatic conditions. Bacterial decomposition of the sludge takes place during the drying process while moisture content is sufficiently high. During the rainy season the process may take a longer time to complete and sizing the area of the drying beds should take this into account.

5.6 Sludge reuse

Raw sludge from activated sludge treatment plants has been applied directly onto agricultural land particularly in the United Kingdom. This practice is considered unsatisfactory because of the presence of pathogens in the sludge in high numbers. There has been no thorough study, however, which has shown that there is an increase in the risk of acquiring illnesses associated with pathogens in the raw sludge when proper handling procedure and non-entry to the land following application is observed.

Reuse of composted sludge as a soil conditioner in agriculture and horticulture returns carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and elements essential for plant growth back to the soil. Less chemical fertilisers are required and the organic carbon helps to improve soil structure for soil aeration, water percolation and root growth. The nitrogen and phosphorus are also released gradually for plant uptake compared to the more soluble chemical fertilisers. The potential of leaching of the nutrients to ground or surface water by rainfall run-off is much reduced. Pathogens and heavy metals can, however, limit the reuse of sludge.

Pathogens should be reduced to levels that do not pose health hazards to workers handling the sludge, potential health hazards from the spreading of helminth eggs and from horticultural produce contaminated by pathogens. Composting of the sludge to attain a temperature of 55 oC for two weeks followed by windrow maturation produces compost that meets these conditions. Stabilised sludge, which has been dewatered and dried on sand beds to attain a low moisture content, can meet the same conditions.

Heavy metals and toxic chemicals are difficult to remove from sludge. Preventing these chemicals from entering the wastewater or sludge should be the aim of wastewater management for sludge intended for reuse in agriculture or horticulture. Reuse may still be possible for purposes such as mine site rehabilitation, highway landscaping or for landfill cover. Sludge that has been conditioned for reuse is called ‘biosolidsE/p>

Conversion of sludge, which is heavily contaminated by heavy metals or toxic chemicals, to oil is technically feasible (Enersludge process). A full-scale plant is operating in Perth, Western Australia (Bridle et al., 2000). The conversion is by a pyrolysis process, heating dried sludge to a high temperature in the absence of oxygen or with a controlled amount of oxygen. Capital and running costs of an oil from sludge process are high.

5.7 Sludge disposal

Final or ultimate disposal of sludge, which cannot be reused, is by landfilling or incineration. Since sludge for landfilling usually contains heavy metals or toxic chemicals, lining of the landfill with clay or plastic liner may be required to prevent contamination of groundwater. Incineration of sludge is by a multiple hearth furnace or fluidised bed furnace. Energy input is required to dry the sludge before combustion is self-sustaining. Combustion flue gases usually need treatment to meet air pollution control standards. Investment and operating costs are high.

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