A passive biofiltration process has been developed to enhance nitrogen removal from onsite sanitation water. The system employs an initial unsaturated vertical flow biofilter with expanded clay media (nitrification), followed in series by a horizontal saturated biofilter for denitrification containing elemental sulfur media as electron donor. A small-scale prototype was operated continuously over eight months on primary wastewater effluent with total nitrogen (TN) of 72.2 mg/L. The average hydraulic loading to the unsaturated biofilter surface was 11.9 cm/day, applied at a 30 min dosing cycle. Average effluent TN was 2.6 mg/L and average TN reduction efficiency was 96.2%. Effluent nitrogen was 1.7 mg/L as organic N, 0.93 mg/L as ammonium (NH4-N), and 0.03 as oxidized (NO3 + NO2) N. There was no surface clogging of unsaturated media, nitrate breakthrough, or replenishment of sulfur media over eight months. Visual and microscopic examinations revealed substantially open pores with limited material accumulation on the upper surface of the unsaturated media. Material accumulation was observed at the inlet zone of the denitrification biofilter, and sulfur media exhibited surface cavities consistent with oxidative dissolution. Two-stage biofiltration is a simple and resilient system for achieving high nitrogen reductions in onsite wastewater.
Keywords: biofiltration, denitrification, expanded clay, nitrification, nitrogen, sulfur, wastewater