Biofouling in membrane bioreactors: Nexus between polyacrylonitrile surface charge and community composition

Marie-Aline Hernalsteens
Hoe bacteriën onze nieuwe waterzuivering bedreigen: back to the origins.“Yo listen up here's a storyAbout a little guy that lives in a blue worldAnd all day and all night and everything he seesIs just blue like him inside and outside […]”Met deze woorden veroverde de Italiaanse dance-act Eiffel 65 de hitparade in de zomer 1999. En hoewel vandaag niemand meer de pretentie heeft te verkondigen dat onze wereld nog uit zuiver blauw bestaat, hebben deze drie zangers de vinger gezet op een onderwerp dat nu essentiëler is dan ooit.

Biofouling in membrane bioreactors: Nexus between polyacrylonitrile surface charge and community composition

Hoe bacteriën onze nieuwe waterzuivering bedreigen: back to the origins.

“Yo listen up here's a storyAbout a little guy that lives in a blue worldAnd all day and all night and everything he seesIs just blue like him inside and outside […]”

Met deze woorden veroverde de Italiaanse dance-act Eiffel 65 de hitparade in de zomer 1999. En hoewel vandaag niemand meer de pretentie heeft te verkondigen dat onze wereld nog uit zuiver blauw bestaat, hebben deze drie zangers de vinger gezet op een onderwerp dat nu essentiëler is dan ooit. Hun bedoeling was het nochtans waarschijnlijk niet, toch?

Water in de kleuren van de regenboogWater. Dat als koosnaampje ook wel ‘het blauwe goud’ krijgt. Maar water is niet zomaar water. Wetenschappers maken een onderscheid tussen groen, blauw of grijs water. Typisch valt regenwater als groen water neer op het aardoppervlak. Het voedt hierbij de grondwaterlagen en oppervlaktestromen. Dit zogenaamde blauw water wordt na het oppompen voor menselijke doeleinden, voor ons, tenslotte omgetoverd tot grijs water, vervuild water. Hoewel ‘omgetoverd’ wel een slecht gekozen werkwoord is.

En hier komt het. Dat vervuild water wordt in gigantische hoeveelheden geproduceerd, veel sneller dan dat het wordt gezuiverd. Onze watervoetafdruk is de laatste jaren dramatisch toegenomen door een globale industriële vooruitgang, geïntensiveerde landbouw en een verhoogde levensstandaard. De polluenten die het water ten aanval nemen, zijn nog nooit zo talrijk geweest en de Europese normen nog nooit zo streng. Op middellange termijn dreigen zuiver en zelfs drinkbaar water op te raken, net als aardolie vandaag. Stel u de consequenties even voor…

De conventionele waterzuiveringtechnieken, waarbij het vervuilde water deels gezuiverd wordt via bezinking van vaste deeltjes, hebben voorbije jaren hun nut bewezen, maar geraken stilaan achterhaald. Onder meer problemen omtrent hun hoge milieuvoetafdruk, hun onredelijke operationele kosten en de variabele kwaliteit van het gezuiverde water, hebben wetenschappers aangezet tot onderzoek naar vernieuwende technieken sinds de jaren 1960.

Net een koffiefilter op maatDe techniek die momenteel letterlijk het hoofd boven water steekt, maakt onder meer gebruik van membranen gesynthetiseerd uit polymeren. Deze zijn filters met poriën kleiner dan partikels en zelfs bacteriën, waarlangs het vervuilde water haar weg baant en zo gezuiverd wordt. De membranen worden in grote hoeveelheden gegroepeerd tot een zogenaamde membraanbioreactor. Ze bieden uiteindelijk niet te onderschatten voordelen ten opzichte van de conventionele waterzuiveringtechnieken, waaronder compactheid en stabiel waterkwaliteit.

Maar net zoals koffiefilters bij gebruik langzaam verstopt raken met koffiedik, zo raken membranen bedekt met partikels en bacteriën aanwezig in het vervuilde water. Op termijn kan geen druppel meer de barrière overbruggen. De gevolgen hiervan zijn niet te onderschatten voor de sector. Kosten lopen op door energieverbruik omdat hoge drukken dienen aangelegd te worden, door gebruik van chemicaliën om de membranen te reinigen of uiteindelijk door vervanging van de membranen. En hoewel dit probleem inherent is aan filtratieprocessen, vormt het een fundamenteel obstakel voor de ontwikkeling van een breed inzetbare, economische en vooral duurzame waterzuivering.

Over bacteriën gesproken?‘Het kind met het badwater weggooien’ luidt het gezegde. Hoewel bacteriën een deel van het probleem vormen, is dit geen reden om membraanbioreactoren af te keuren. Bacteriën zelf zijn ónmisbaar in het waterzuiveringproces. Ze zijn bijvoorbeeld in staat nitraten en fosfaten uit het water te verwijderen, twee nutriënten die in grote mate via de landbouw in oppervlaktestromen terechtkomen en ecosystemen grondig aantasten. Oplossingen moeten dus gezocht worden in de wijze waarop bacteriën interageren met membranen. Indien wetenschappers bacteriën beletten de membraanporiën op termijn te blokkeren – in wetenschappelijke termen foulen genoemd, hoeven ze deze vernieuwende waterzuiveringtechniek niet af te schrijven.

Hoe bacteriën zich vasthechten aan een oppervlak en het vervolgens koloniseren tot volwaardige, slijmerige biofilms, is vandaag grotendeels geweten. Biofilms? Net als het uiterst gladde laagje rond rivierstenen. Uit onderzoek zijn reeds talrijke fysische en chemische technieken ontwikkeld om bacteriële vasthechting te beperken en zelfs te voorkomen. Denk bijvoorbeeld aan het voordelig effect van turbulenties in het water langs een oppervlak of het gebruik van detergenten als reinigingsmiddel. Maar een gebrek aan meer specifieke inzichten in de intieme (biochemische) membraan-bacterie relatie ondermijnt überhaupt de ontwikkeling van meer doelgerichte en duurzame strategieën.

Neem nu volgende concrete vraagstelling:

Wat zou er gebeuren indien de gebruikte membranen een oppervlaktelading dragen? Wetende dat bacteriën zelf meestal negatief geladen zijn, zullen ze zich dan kunnen vasthechten op positief of negatief geladen membraanoppervlakken? En in geval van ongeladen oppervlakken? Maar ook, hoe zou de kolonie evolueren met de tijd nadat de pioniersbacteriën zijn neergestreken? En zullen alle bacteriën zich kunnen vasthechten, of slechts een beperkte groep?

Veel beekjes maken een groot waterBovenvermelde vraagstelling vergt een tijdrovende maar boeiende en technisch gezien rijke wetenschappelijke benadering. Want niet enkel dienen de bacteriën en hun koloniale historie nauwkeurig opgevolgd te worden in de tijd, maar vooreerst moeten de membranen met de gewenste eigenschappen aangemaakt en opgemeten worden. Hierbij niet te vergeten, mogen de membranen slechts in één opzicht van elkaar verschillen: hun oppervlaktelading.

Het onderzoeksantwoord is uiteindelijk alom onverwacht. Niet enkel blijken bacteriën in staat zowel positief, negatief als ongeladen oppervlakken te koloniseren, maar het draait ook uit plaats te grijpen in gelijke mate. Bovendien verandert de samenstelling van de bacteriële populatie met de tijd, onafhankelijk van de oppervlaktelading van de beschouwde membranen. Kortom, de lokale eigenschappen van de geteste membranen (hier: oppervlaktelading) blijken op het eerste zicht niet bepalend in de selectieprocedure van key foulants op middellange tot lange termijn.

Niettemin is de zaak uiterst complex, en tientallen vragen blijven onbeantwoord, zoals de vraag of allen versus een beperkte groep bacteriën in staat zijn als werkelijke pionier op te treden in de allereerste fase van het kolonisatieproces. Gelukkig weet een wetenschapper dat het goed vissen is in troebel water…

Hoewel het antwoord op de bovenvermelde vragen uiteindelijk slechts een tipje van de sluier oplicht, gaat het onderzoek hier om de meest fundamentele verhouding tussen bacteriën en membraanoppervlakken in de waterzuivering, de genesis. Indien het antwoord eenduidig kan geformuleerd worden, met de bijdrage van parallelle en vervolgonderzoeken, zal de weg hoogstwaarschijnlijk openliggen voor the Blue Gold Rush.

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Universiteit of Hogeschool
Bio-Ingenieurswetenschappen, Major Milieutechnologie
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2015
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