Technological options for the management of biosolids

Hailong Wang, Sally L Brown, Guna N Magesan, Alison H Slade, Michael Quintern, Peter W Clinton, Tim W Payn
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2008, 15 (4): 308-17

BACKGROUND, AIM, AND SCOPE: Large quantities of biosolids (sewage sludge), which are produced from municipal wastewater treatment, are ever-increasing because of the commissioning of new treatment plants and continuous upgrades of the existing facilities. A large proportion of biosolids are currently landfilled. With increasing pressure from regulators and the general public, landfilling of biosolids is being phased out in many countries because of potential secondary pollution caused by leachate and the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Biosolids contain nutrients and energy that can be used beneficially. Significant efforts have been made recently to develop new technologies to manage biosolids and make useful products from them. In this paper, we provide a review of the technologies in biosolids management.

MATERIALS AND METHODS: A survey of literature was conducted.

RESULTS: At present, the most common beneficial use of biosolids is agricultural land application because of inherent fertilizer values found in biosolids. Expansion of land application, however, may be limited in the future because of more stringent regulatory requirements and public concern about food chain contamination in some countries. Perceived as a green energy source, the combustion of biosolids has received renewed interest. Anaerobic digestion is generally a more effective method than incineration for energy recovery, and digested biosolids are suitable for further beneficial use through land application. Although conventional incineration systems for biosolid management generally consume more energy than they produce because of the high moisture content in the biosolids, it is expected that more combustion systems, either monocombustion or cocombustion, will be built to cope with the increasing quantity of biosolids.

DISCUSSION: Under the increasingly popular low-carbon economy policy, biosolids may be recognized as a renewable fuel and be eligible for 'carbon credits'. Because ash can be used to manufacture construction materials, combustion can provide a complete management for biosolids. A number of advanced thermal conversion technologies (e.g., supercritical water oxidation process and pyrolysis) are under development for biosolids management with a goal to generate useful products, such as higher quality fuels and recovery of phosphorus. With an ever-increasing demand for renewable energy, growing bioenergy crops and forests using biosolids as a fertilizer and soil amendment can not only contribute to the low-carbon economy but also maximize the nutrient and carbon value of the biosolids.

CONCLUSIONS: Land application of biosolids achieves a complete reuse of its nutrients and organic carbon at a relatively low cost. Therefore, land application should become a preferred management option where there is available land, the quality of biosolids meet regulatory requirements, and it is socially acceptable. Intensive energy cropping and forest production using biosolids can help us meet the ever-increasing demand for renewable energy, which can eliminate the contamination potential for food sources, a common social concern about land application of biosolids. In recent years, increasing numbers of national and local governments have adopted more stringent regulations toward biosolid management. Under such a political climate, biosolids producers will have to develop multireuse strategies for biosolids to avoid being caught because a single route management practice might be under pressure at a short notice. Conventional incineration systems for biosolids management generally consume more energy than they produce and, although by-products may be used in manufacturing, this process cannot be regarded as a beneficial use of biosolids. However, biosolids are likely to become a source of renewable energy and produce 'carbon credits' under the increasingly popular, low-carbon economy policy.

RECOMMENDATIONS AND PERSPECTIVES: To manage biosolids in a sustainable manner, there is a need for further research in the following areas: achieving a higher degree of public understanding and acceptance for the beneficial use of biosolids, developing cost-efficient and effective thermal conversions for direct energy recovery from biosolids, advancing technology for phosphorus recovery, and selecting or breeding crops for efficient biofuel production.

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