Enhanced hydraulic cleanability of biofilms developed under a low phosphorus concentration in reverse osmosis membrane systems

Luisa Javier, Nadia Farhat, Johannes S. Vrouwenvelder

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22 Scopus citations


A critical problem in seawater reverse osmosis (RO) filtration processes is biofilm accumulation, which reduces system performance and increases energy requirements. As a result, membrane systems need to be periodically cleaned by combining chemical and physical protocols. Nutrient limitation in the feed water is a strategy to control biofilm formation, lengthening stable membrane system performance. However, the cleanability of biofilms developed under various feed water nutrient conditions is not well understood. This study analyzes the removal efficiency of biofilms grown in membrane fouling simulators (MFSs) supplied with water varying in phosphorus concentrations (3 and 6 μg P·L-1 and with constant biodegradable carbon concentration) by applying hydraulic cleaning after a defined 140% increase in the feed channel pressure drop, through increasing the cross-flow velocity from 0.18 m s-1 to 0.35 m s-1 for 1 h. The two phosphorus concentrations (3 and 6 μg P·L-1) simulate the RO feed water without and with the addition of a phosphorus-based antiscalant, respectively, and were chosen based on measurements at a full-scale seawater RO desalination plant. Biomass quantification parameters performed after membrane autopsies such as total cell count, adenosine triphosphate, total organic carbon, and extracellular polymeric substances were used along with feed channel pressure drop measurements to evaluate biofilm removal efficiency. The outlet water during hydraulic cleaning (1 h) was collected and characterized as well. Optical coherence tomography images were taken before and after hydraulic cleaning for visualization of biofilm morphology. Biofilms grown at 3 μg P·L-1 had an enhanced hydraulic cleanability compared to biofilms grown at 6 μg P·L-1. The higher detachment for biofilms grown at a lower phosphorus concentration was explained by more soluble polymers in the EPS, resulting in a lower biofilm cohesive and adhesive strength. This study confirms that manipulating the feed water nutrient composition can engineer a biofilm that is easier to remove, shifting research focus towards biofilm engineering and more sustainable cleaning strategies.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)100085
JournalWater Research X
StatePublished - Dec 15 2020


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