Secondary treatment

The objective of secondary treatment is the further treatment of the effluent from primary treatment to remove the residual organics and suspended solids. In most cases, secondary treatment follows primary treatment and involves the removal of biodegradable dissolved and colloidal organic matter using aerobic biological treatment processes. Aerobic biological treatment (see Box) is performed in the presence of oxygen by aerobic microorganisms (principally bacteria) that metabolize the organic matter in the wastewater, thereby producing more microorganisms and inorganic end-products (principally CO2, NH3, and H2O). Several aerobic biological processes are used for secondary treatment differing primarily in the manner in which oxygen is supplied to the microorganisms and in the rate at which organisms metabolize the organic matter.

High-rate biological processes are characterized by relatively small reactor volumes and high concentrations of microorganisms compared with low rate processes. Consequently, the growth rate of new organisms is much greater in high-rate systems because of the well controlled environment. The microorganisms must be separated from the treated wastewater by sedimentation to produce clarified secondary effluent. The sedimentation tanks used in secondary treatment, often referred to as secondary clarifiers, operate in the same basic manner as the primary clarifiers described previously. The biological solids removed during secondary sedimentation, called secondary or biological sludge, are normally combined with primary sludge for sludge processing.

Common high-rate processes include the activated sludge processes, trickling filters or biofilters, oxidation ditches, and rotating biological contactors (RBC). A combination of two of these processes in series (e.g., biofilter followed by activated sludge) is sometimes used to treat municipal wastewater containing a high concentration of organic material from industrial sources.

i. Activated Sludge

In the activated sludge process, the dispersed-growth reactor is an aeration tank or basin containing a suspension of the wastewater and microorganisms, the mixed liquor. The contents of the aeration tank are mixed vigorously by aeration devices which also supply oxygen to the biological suspension . Aeration devices commonly used include submerged diffusers that release compressed air and mechanical surface aerators that introduce air by agitating the liquid surface. Hydraulic retention time in the aeration tanks usually ranges from 3 to 8 hours but can be higher with high BOD5 wastewaters. Following the aeration step, the microorganisms are separated from the liquid by sedimentation and the clarified liquid is secondary effluent. A portion of the biological sludge is recycled to the aeration basin to maintain a high mixed-liquor suspended solids (MLSS) level. The remainder is removed from the process and sent to sludge processing to maintain a relatively constant concentration of microorganisms in the system. Several variations of the basic activated sludge process, such as extended aeration and oxidation ditches, are in common use, but the principles are similar.

ii. Trickling Filters

A trickling filter or biofilter consists of a basin or tower filled with support media such as stones, plastic shapes, or wooden slats. Wastewater is applied intermittently, or sometimes continuously, over the media. Microorganisms become attached to the media and form a biological layer or fixed film. Organic matter in the wastewater diffuses into the film, where it is metabolized. Oxygen is normally supplied to the film by the natural flow of air either up or down through the media, depending on the relative temperatures of the wastewater and ambient air. Forced air can also be supplied by blowers but this is rarely necessary. The thickness of the biofilm increases as new organisms grow. Periodically, portions of the film ‘slough off the media. The sloughed material is separated from the liquid in a secondary clarifier and discharged to sludge processing. Clarified liquid from the secondary clarifier is the secondary effluent and a portion is often recycled to the biofilter to improve hydraulic distribution of the wastewater over the filter.

iii. Rotating Biological Contactors

Rotating biological contactors (RBCs) are fixed-film reactors similar to biofilters in that organisms are attached to support media. In the case of the RBC, the support media are slowly rotating discs that are partially submerged in flowing wastewater in the reactor. Oxygen is supplied to the attached biofilm from the air when the film is out of the water and from the liquid when submerged, since oxygen is transferred to the wastewater by surface turbulence created by the discs’ rotation. Sloughed pieces of biofilm are removed in the same manner described for biofilters.

High-rate biological treatment processes, in combination with primary sedimentation, typically remove 85 % of the BOD5 and SS originally present in the raw wastewater and some of the heavy metals. Activated sludge generally produces an effluent of slightly higher quality, in terms of these constituents, than biofilters or RBCs. When coupled with a disinfection step, these processes can provide substantial but not complete removal of bacteria and virus. However, they remove very little phosphorus, nitrogen, non-biodegradable organics, or dissolved minerals. Data on effluent quality from selected secondary treatment plants in California are presented in Table 13.


Quality parameter (mg/I except as otherwise indicated)Plant location
Trickling filtersActivated sludge
Chino Basin MWD (No. 1)Chino Basin MWD (No. 2)Santa Rosa LagunaMontecito Sanitary District
Biochemical oxygen demand, BOD521811
Chemical oxygen demand27
Suspended solids182613
Total nitrogen
Total phosphorus12.5
pH (unit)7.6
Electrical conductivity dS/m1.39
Total dissolved solids476591484940
Sodium adsorption ratio2.
Boron (B)
Alkalinity (CaCO3)226
Total Hardness (CaCO3)156200175265

Source: Asano and Tchobanoglous (1987)

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