Bioflocculation: Chemical free, pre-treatment technology for the desalination industry

Edo Bar-Zeev, Natalia Belkin, Boris Liberman, Ilana Berman-Frank, Tom Berman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rapid sand filtration (RSF), proceeded by chemical coagulation and flocculation, is a commonly used, effective pretreatment in the desalination industry. We designed and tested a novel, large pilot-scale, two-stage granular Rapid Bioflocculation Filter (RBF) based on a first-stage Bioflocculator (BF) unit followed by a mixed-media bed filter (MBF). The BF filter bed consisted of an extremely porous volcanic Tuff granular medium which provided an enlarged surface area for microbial development and biofilm proliferation. We compared the efficiency of the pilot RBF to that of a full-scale RSF, operating with upstream chemical coagulation, by measuring the removal from the same untreated seawater feed of key factors related to membrane clogging: SDI, turbidity, chlorophyll a (Chl a) and transparent exopolymer particles (TEP). After 2 weeks of operation, the Tuff grains were colonized extensively by coccoid bacteria that formed biofilm along the entire BF. With bacterial colonization and biofilm development, numerous aggregates of bacteria and some algal cells embedded in an amorphous organic matrix were formed on and within the Tuff grains. By 1-3 months, the biotic diversity within the Tuff filter bed had increased to include filamentous bacteria, cyanobacteria, fungi, protista and even crustaceans and marine worms. During and for ~24h after each cleaning cycle (carried out every5 to 7 days by upward flushing with air and water), large numbers of floc-like particles, from ~15μm to~2mm in size were observed in the filtrate of the BF unit. Microscopic examination of these flocs (stained with Alcian Blue and SYTOR 9) showed that they were aggregates of many smaller particles with associated bacteria and algae within a polysaccharide gel-like matrix. These biogenic flocs (bioflocs) were observed to form during normal operation of the RBF, accumulating as aggregates of inorganic and organic material on the Tuff surfaces. With each flush cleaning cycle, these bioflocs were released into the BF effluent but were retained by the second phase MBF unit. No flocs were seen in the MBF filtrate. Over a year-long study, both the pilot RBF and the full-scale RSF showed similar filtration efficiencies, measured as the percentage removal of Chl a, TEP, turbidity and SDI from the same seawater feed. These results indicate the potential of the bioflocculation approach with no chemical additives as an alternative to conventional RSF pretreatment for large SWRO facilities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3093-3102
Number of pages10
JournalWater Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank IDE for partial funding and granting us access to the Hadera desalination plant, Israel. Partial support (to TB) for this study was provided by the Mayim Consortium , Magnet Programs , Office of the Chief Scientist , Israel Ministry of Industry , Trade and Labor . This research is part of the PhD thesis requirements for Natalia Belkin.


  • Bioflocculator
  • Desalination pretreatment
  • Rapid sand filtration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal


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