Most of the bacteria that absorb the organic material in a wastewater treatment system are facultative in nature. This means they are adaptable to survive and multiply in either anaerobic or aerobic conditions. The nature of individual bacteria is dependent upon the environment in which they live. Usually, facultative bacteria will be anaerobic unless there is some type of mechanical or biochemical process used to add oxygen to the wastewater. When bacteria are in the process of being transferred from one environment to the other, the metamorphosis from anaerobic to aerobic state (and vice versa) takes place within a couple of hours.
Anaerobic bacteria live and reproduce in the absence of free oxygen. They utilize compounds such as sulfates and nitrates for energy and their metabolism is substantially reduced. In order to remove a given amount of organic material in an anaerobic treatment system, the organic material must be exposed to a significantly higher quantity of bacteria and/or detained for a much longer period of time. A typical use for anaerobic bacteria would be in a septic tank. The slower metabolism of the anaerobic bacteria dictates that the wastewater be held several days in order to achieve even a nominal 50% reduction in organic material. That is why septic tanks are always followed by some type of effluent treatment and disposal process. The advantage of using the anaerobic process is that electromechanical equipment is not required. Anaerobic bacteria release hydrogen sulfide as well as methane gas, both of which can create hazardous conditions. Even as the anaerobic action begins in the collection lines of a sewer system, deadly hydrogen sulfide or explosive methane gas can accumulate and be life threatening.
Aerobic bacteria live and multiply in the presence of free oxygen. Facultative bacteria always achieve an aerobic state when oxygen is present. While the name “aerobic” implies breathing air, dissolved oxygen is the primary source of energy for aerobic bacteria. The metabolism of aerobes is much higher than for anaerobes. This increase means that 90% fewer organisms are needed compared to the anaerobic process, or that treatment is accomplished in 90% less time. This provides a number of advantages including a higher percentage of organic removal. The byproducts of aerobic bacteria are carbon dioxide and water. Aerobic bacteria live in colonial structures called floc and are kept in suspension by the mechanical action used to introduce oxygen into the wastewater. This mechanical action exposes the floc to the organic material while treatment takes place. Following digestion, a gravity clarifier separates and settles out the floc. Because of the mechanical nature of the aerobic digestion process, maintenance and operator oversight are required.
The majority of filamentous organisms are bacteria, although some of them are classified as algae, fungi or other life forms. There are a number of types of filamentous bacteria which proliferate in the activated sludge process. Filamentous organisms perform several different roles in the process, some of which are beneficial and some of which are detrimental. When filamentous organisms are in low concentrations in the process, they serve to strengthen the floc particles. This effect reduces the amount of shearing in the mechanical action of the aeration tank and allows the floc particles to increase in size. Larger floc particles are more readily settled in a clarifier. Larger floc particles settling in the clarifier also tend to accumulate smaller particulates (surface adsorption) as they settle, producing an even higher quality effluent. Conversely, if the filamentous organisms reach too high a concentration, they can extend dramatically from the floc particles and tie one floc particle to another (inter floc bridging) or even form a filamentous mat of extra large size. Due to the increased surface area without a corresponding increase in mass, the activated sludge will not settle well. This results in less solids separation and may cause a washout of solid material from the system. In addition, air bubbles can become trapped in the mat and cause it to float, resulting in a floating scum mat. Due to the high surface area of the filamentous bacteria, once they reach an excess concentration, they can absorb a higher percentage of the organic material and inhibit the growth of more desirable organisms.