About UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
top image
space space space
Newsletter and Technical Publications
<International Source Book On Environmentally Sound Technologies
for Wastewater and Stormwater Management>

4.2.1 Activated sludge treatment

The term 'activated sludge' refers to sludge in the aeration tank of an activated sludge treatment process. It consists of flocs of bacteria, which consume the biodegradable organic substances in the wastewater. Because of its usefulness in removing organic substances from wastewater, the sludge is kept in the process by separating it from the treated wastewater and re-circulating it. A typical arrangement of an activated sludge process is schematically shown in Figure 2.24.

Wastewater entering an activated sludge treatment plant is usually passed through a bar screen to remove gross materials such as napkins, rags and other materials which may damage mechanical equipment further down the treatment plant. The bar screen consists of vertical bars separated by a distance of about 1 cm. Screened solids are continually scraped off the bars. The screenings can be landfilled or incinerated.

Figure 2.24: Schematic diagram of an activated sludge wastewater treatment process

Sand and similar heavy particles are removed next in a grit chamber. This chamber can be aerated to separate these particles from other suspended solids. The wastewater spends a relatively short period in the grit chamber (in the order of minutes). The sedimented sand and grit is usually landfilled.

The finer solids are removed in a settling or sedimentation tank, where the wastewater spends of the order of an hour to allow the solids to settle or float. The mechanical removal of solids as described above is usually called 'primary treatment', the sedimentation tank as primary sedimentation tank, the overflow from the sedimentation tank as primary-treated wastewater (primary effluent) and the sludge produced as primary sludge.

The primary-treated wastewater is then passed to an aeration chamber. Aeration provides oxygen to the activated sludge and at the same time thoroughly mixes the sludge and the wastewater. Aeration is by either bubbling air through diffusers at the bottom of the aeration tank, or by mechanically agitating the surface of the water.

In the aeration tank the bacteria in the activated sludge consume the organic substances in the wastewater as described in Section 2 (2.3). The organic substances are utilised by the bacteria for energy, growth and reproduction. The wastewater spends in the order of a few hours in the aeration chamber before entering a second sedimentation tank to separate the activated sludge from the treated wastewater. The activated sludge is returned to the aeration tank. There is an increase in the amount of activated sludge because of growth and reproduction of the bacteria. The excess sludge is wasted to maintain a desired amount of sludge in the system. This part of the treatment process is called 'secondary treatment', the sedimentation tank as secondary sedimentation tank, the overflow from the sedimentation tank as secondary-treated wastewater (secondary effluent) and the excess activated sludge as secondary sludge.

Depending on the flow rate of wastewater, several parallel trains of primary and secondary stages can be employed. There are several ways to operate an activated sludge process. In a 'high rate' process a relatively high volume of wastewater is treated per unit volume of activated sludge. The high amount of organic waste consumed by the activated sludge produces a high amount of excess sludge. In an 'extended aeration' mode of operation the opposite condition takes place. A relatively low amount of organic waste is treated per unit volume of sludge with little excess sludge to be removed. Removal of BOD is higher in the extended aeration mode compared to the high rate mode, but more wastewater can be treated with the latter mode.

An activated sludge treatment plant is a highly mechanised plant, and is suited to automated operation. The capital cost for building such a plant is relatively high. The energy requirement, particularly for providing air to the aeration tank, is also relatively high. There is a need for regular maintenance of the mechanical equipment, which requires skilled technical personnel and suitable spare parts. The operation and maintenance costs of an activated sludge treatment plant are therefore relatively high.

An activated sludge treatment process can be operated in batches rather than continuously. One tank is allowed to fill with wastewater. It is then aerated to satisfy the oxygen demand of the wastewater, following which the activated sludge is allowed to settle. The treated wastewater is then decanted, and the tank is filled with a new batch of wastewater. At least two tanks are needed for the batch mode of operation, constituting what is called a ‘sequential batch reactor (SBR)'.  SBRs are suited to smaller flows, because the size of each tank is determined by the volume of wastewater produced during the treatment period in the other tank.


      Main Menu


  • Brochure
  • IETC Brochure

  • International Year of Forests
  • International Year of Forests

  • World Environment Day
  • ??????

  • UNEP Campaign
  • UNite to Combat Climate Change