Removal of pharmaceuticals from nitrified urine by adsorption on granular activated carbon.Water Res X. 2020 Dec 01; 9:100057.WR
Nitrification and distillation of urine allow for the recovery of all nutrients in a highly concentrated fertilizer solution. However, pharmaceuticals excreted with urine are only partially removed during these two process steps. For a sustainable and safe application, more extensive removal of pharmaceuticals is necessary. To enhance the pharmaceutical removal, which is already occurring during urine storage, nitrification and distillation, an adsorption column with granular activated carbon (GAC) can be included in the treatment train. We executed a pilot-scale study to investigate the adsorption of eleven indicator pharmaceuticals on GAC. During 74 days, we treated roughly 1000 L of pre-filtered and nitrified urine spiked with pharmaceuticals in two flow-through GAC columns filled with different grain sizes. We compared the performance of these columns by calculating the number of treated bed volumes until breakthrough and carbon usage rates. The eleven spiked pharmaceuticals were candesartan, carbamazepine, clarithromycin, diclofenac, emtricitabine, hydrochlorothiazide, irbesartan, metoprolol, N4-acetylsulfamethoxazole, sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim. At the shortest empty bed contact time (EBCT) of 25 min, immediate breakthrough was observed in both columns shortly after the start of the experiments. Strong competition by natural organic material (NOM) could have caused the low pharmaceutical removal at the EBCT of 25 min. At EBCTs of 70, 92 and 115 min, more than 660 bed volumes could be treated until breakthrough in the column with fine GAC. The earliest breakthrough was observed for candesartan and clarithromycin. On coarse GAC, only half the number of bed volumes could be treated until breakthrough compared to fine GAC. The probable reason for the later breakthrough with fine GAC is the smaller intraparticle diffusive path length. DOC and UV absorbance measurements at 265 nm indicated that both parameters can be used as indicators for the breakthrough of pharmaceuticals. In contrast to pharmaceuticals and DOC, the nutrient compounds ammonium, nitrate, phosphate, potassium and sulfate were not removed significantly. A comparison with literature values suggests that the amount of GAC needed to remove pharmaceuticals from human excreta could be reduced by nearly two orders of magnitude, if urine were treated on site instead of being discharged and treated in a centralized wastewater treatment plant.