Water research

Complete nutrient recovery from source-separated urine by nitrification and distillation.

PMID 22119369


In this study we present a method to recover all nutrients from source-separated urine in a dry solid by combining biological nitrification with distillation. In a first process step, a membrane-aerated biofilm reactor was operated stably for more than 12 months, producing a nutrient solution with a pH between 6.2 and 7.0 (depending on the pH set-point), and an ammonium to nitrate ratio between 0.87 and 1.15 gN gN(-1). The maximum nitrification rate was 1.8 ± 0.3 gN m(-2) d(-1). Process stability was achieved by controlling the pH via the influent. In the second process step, real nitrified urine and synthetic solutions were concentrated in lab-scale distillation reactors. All nutrients were recovered in a dry powder except for some ammonia (less than 3% of total nitrogen). We estimate that the primary energy demand for a simple nitrification/distillation process is four to five times higher than removing nitrogen and phosphorus in a conventional wastewater treatment plant and producing the equivalent amount of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers. However, the primary energy demand can be reduced to values very close to conventional treatment, if 80% of the water is removed with reverse osmosis and distillation is operated with vapor compression. The ammonium nitrate content of the solid residue is below the limit at which stringent EU safety regulations for fertilizers come into effect; nevertheless, we propose some additional process steps that will increase the thermal stability of the solid product.