Flocs in disguise? High granule abundance found in continuous-flow activated sludge treatment plants

Stephany P. Wei*, H. David Stensel, Bao Nguyen Quoc, David A. Stahl, Xiaowu Huang, Po Heng Lee, Mari K.H. Winkler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


To date, high performance of full-scale aerobic granular sludge (AGS) technology has been demonstrated on a global scale. Its further integration with existing continuous flow activated sludge (CFAS) treatment plants is the next logical step. All granular sludge reactors operated in sequencing batch reactors (SBR) mode with anaerobic feeding conditions select for growth of phosphorus and glycogen accumulating organisms (PAO and GAO, respectively), which are known to enhance sludge settling characteristics. Therefore, we hypothesized that AGS are commonly present at full-scale CFAS processes with enhanced biological phosphorus removal (EBPR) and low sludge volume index (SVI). This hypothesis was confirmed at 13 EBPR plants, where granules were found present (at plants where SVI was lower than 100 ml/g) with a strong correlation between high granule abundance and low SVI. A wide range of granule abundance was found among the plants, ranging from 0.5% to as high as 80%. Evaluations of the EBPR plant process configurations showed that high granule abundances may be related to selector design features such as high anaerobic food to mass (F/M) ratios, unmixed in-line fermentation, and high influent soluble COD fraction. Granules were also observed at a non-EBPR plant with an aerobic selector receiving high F/M feeds. Quantitative PCR and 16S rRNA gene sequencing analyses revealed higher relative gene abundance of Accumulibacter PAO and Competibacter GAO in the granules over flocs, as well as a correlation between granule abundance and some possible EPS producers such as Flavobacterium and Competibacter. Our results indicated that process configurations that select for slow-growing or EPS-producing heterotrophs play an important role for granule formation in full-scale CFAS systems as previously shown in SBR configurations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number115865
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - 15 Jul 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Aerobic granules
  • Continuous flow
  • EBPR
  • Polyphosphate and glycogen accumulating organisms
  • SVI


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