Fouling characteristics of aerobic submerged membrane bioreactors were analysed under two different membrane materials. Polyethersulfone (PES) membranes were found to foul faster at sub-critical flux than polyolefin (PO) membranes. Physico-chemical characterisation, by means of comparison of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS) and soluble microbial products (SMP) concentrations, as well as the mixed liquor suspended solids (MLSS) concentration were unable to explain the differences in membrane fouling of the contrasting membrane materials. The use of confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) to image organic foulants directly on the membrane surface, coupled with image analyses showed that membrane fouling mechanism shifted from a biofilm initiated process on PO membranes to a bio-organic dominated process on PES membranes under sub-critical flux conditions. These results show that physico-chemical characterisation of an MBR process may not effectively distinguish the effectiveness of different membrane materials, so long as operating conditions are identical, and that characterisation of foulants on the membrane surfaces was necessary to elucidate the differences in membrane fouling.
Keywords: confocal laser scanning microscopy, extracellular polymeric substances, fouling, membrane bioreactor, mixed liquor suspended solids