2017 Progress Report: Development of 3D-printed surfaces for ultra-high surface area biofilters for water pollution remediation

EPA Grant Number: SV836951
Title: Development of 3D-printed surfaces for ultra-high surface area biofilters for water pollution remediation
Investigators: Blersch, David , Carrano, Andres
Institution: Auburn University Main Campus
EPA Project Officer: Carleton, James N
Phase: II
Project Period: February 1, 2017 through January 31, 2019
Project Period Covered by this Report: February 1, 2017 through January 31,2018
Project Amount: $74,310
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet - Phase 2 (2016) Recipients Lists
Research Category: Sustainability , P3 Awards , P3 Challenge Area - Water


The aim of the experiment is to compare the performance of a novel high-surface area biofilter media using Additive Manufacturing technology against a traditional commercial carrier already on the market for nitrogen removal.

Progress Summary:

Mathematical modeling of the carrier and fabrication

The carriers were fabricated with the goal of maximizing the capabilities of Additive Manufacturing in building complex geometries to meet at the same time the requirements for optimal bacterial development into moving beds. Such requirements are: the achievement of a high specific surface area, an optimal void size resulting in minimum clogging and enough shelter for the bacterial biofilm that prevents from sloughing.

An approach that meets the previous requirements is the gyroid, which can be represented by a mathematical surface based equation in terms of sine and cosine functions (Equation 1) that lack of straight lines (Schoen, 1970).

sin x ∗ cos y + sin y ∗ cos z + sin z ∗ cos x = 0                                    [1]

Equation 1 represents the mathematical model of the gyroid shown on Figure 1 by using Mathematica®




Figure 1: Gyroid surface

Mathematica® has the option of truncating any surface into any other 3D shape. For example, by introducing the instruction displayed on Code 1, the surface previously generated by equation 1 gains the shape of a sphere of radius 10 mm (Equation 2). The final surface is shown on Figure 2.

[Code 1]

gyroid = ContourPlot3D[Cos[𝑥]Sin[𝑦] + Cos[𝑦]Sin[𝑧] + Cos[𝑧]Sin[𝑥] == 0,

{𝑥, −3𝜋, 3𝜋}, {𝑦, −3𝜋, 3𝜋}, {𝑧, −3𝜋, 3𝜋},

RegionFunction → Function[{𝑥, 𝑦, 𝑧}, 𝑥2 + 𝑦2 + 𝑧2 < 100], Extrusion → 0.50, Mesh → None, ViewPoint → {1,1,1}]

𝑥2 + 𝑦2 + 𝑧2 < 100                                                            [2]




Figure 2: Spherical gyroid surface

Modifications of code 1 resulted in three different gyroid surfaces with different truncated sphere shapes and different specific surface areas.

The conversion of the surface model to STL format is performed by Code 2

[Code 2]

Export["gyroid. stl", gyroid

For the estimation of the specific surface area, the approach was assessed by the information provided by Netfabb® software (Autodesk, Mill Valley California). Such software provides the surface area of any digital design in STL format.

The bulk volume of each printed carrier (V) was estimated by following the spherical geometry of the carrier (Equation 3)

V = 4πr3


The calculation of the specific surface area was done by dividing the surface area of the carrier by the bulk volume of it. Table 1 summarizes information for the three proposed carrier designs.

Table 1: 3D-printed carrier specific surface area information




Once the 3D carriers were printed, they were soaked in a solution of sodium hydroxide (0.5% m/v) for 12 hours to allow the detachment of the support material from the inner regions of the part. Complete removal was assessed by using water jetting and mechanical scrapping.


Two hypotheses will be subject to investigation:

  1. A larger surface area on the 3D printed gyroid media carrier promotes a faster Total Ammonia Nitrogen removal (TAN) than a traditional media carrier.
  2. The feature design of the high-surface area 3D printed gyroid media carrier enhances a faster TAN removal than traditional media carrier.

To prove hypothesis 1, twelve reactors are going to be built with a capacity to treat 1.3 liters of synthetic wastewater. A total of four levels of carriers will be tested during experimentation. Details of the experimental design are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2: Experimental Design for Experiment 2 to Test Hypothesis 1


Two hypotheses will be subject to investigation:

  1. A larger surface area on the 3D printed gyroid media carrier promotes a faster Total Ammonia Nitrogen removal (TAN) than a traditional media carrier.
  2. The feature design of the high-surface area 3D printed gyroid media carrier enhances a faster TAN removal than traditional media carrier.

To prove hypothesis 1, twelve reactors are going to be built with a capacity to treat 1.3 liters of synthetic wastewater. A total of four levels of carriers will be tested during experimentation. Details of the experimental design are displayed in Table 2.




The experimentation process will be preceded by a conditioning state where a fixed concentration of Ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) is prepared as a batch source on each bioreactor (12). Then, 716 k1 carriers (equivalent to 575 mL) will be introduced into 3 reactors with an operating capacity of 1.3 L. The same process will be repeated on the remaining reactors, but this time they will be filled with 61 3D-printed biofilters (equivalent to 575 mL): 3 reactors with 584 cm2/cm3 3D printed gyroids, another 3 reactors with 1168 cm2/cm3 3D printed gyroids and finally 3 reactors with 2310 cm2/cm3 3D printed gyroids.

Once the carriers have been introduced, the reactors will be filled with 1.3 L of synthetic water and prior operation they will be inoculated with a highly concentrated mix of nitrifying bacteria. A daily supply of the inoculum will be dosified while TAN (Total Ammonia Nitrogen) and Nitrates Nitrogen levels are monitored by photometry. Once nitrates are present in water, it will mean that the reactors will have started their cycling process. This change will be because of the nitrifying activity of the inoculated bacteria. At this point, the reactors will be ready to be tracked on their performance for removing Total Ammonia Nitrogen.

Prior to the actual experimentation, a distribution of the operational cycles of the MBSBBR reactor will be defined. The operation cycle of the reactors will include Filling Phase, Reaction Phase, Settling Phase, Decantation Phase and Idle Phase.

To prove hypothesis 2, a similar methodology will be defined, but this time instead of keeping constant the packed volume of the biocarrier, the specific surface area will do.

Hence, after experimentation to test hypothesis 1, the same twelve reactors are going to keep the same capacity to treat 1.3 litters of synthetic wastewater. A total of four levels of carriers will be tested during experimentation. Details of the experimental design are displayed in Table 3.




675 mL of packed volume of K1 carrier (equivalent to 3373 cm2 of surface area) will be introduced into 3 reactors with an operating capacity of 1.3 L. The same process will be repeated on the remaining reactors, but this time 3 of them are going to be filled with 578 mL of packed volume of 3D-printed biofilters (584 m2/m3), another 3 reactors with 289 mL of packed volume of 3D-printed biofilters (1168 m2/m3), 3D printed gyroids and finally the 3 remaining reactors with 146 mL of packed volume of 3D-printed biofilters (2310 m2/m3). All these last three configurations accumulate a total surface area of 3373 cm2 as well as the k1 reactor available for the biofilm to establish.

Preliminary Experiment

Preliminary experimentation was performed following the procedure previously described, but only on two reactors filled with two type media carriers. One reactor was filled with K1 carrier and the second one with the 3D printed gyroid (1169 m2/m3). This preliminary experimentation allowed testing of the capabilities of the proposed methodology and determine the feasibility to be implemented on actual experimentation.

The configuration of the reactors was such to investigate hypothesis 1 which states that the more surface area on the 3D printed gyroid media carrier promote a faster Total Ammonia Nitrogen removal (TAN) than a traditional media carrier.

The reactors were 2 liter glass containers whose lids were drilled in the center to allow the placement of a rubber 2-holed stopper size 2. One of the holes of the stopper was used as sampling port. A plastic tube connected to the centralized air supply system of the building was passed through the other hole of the stopper to provide aeration to the reactor by means of a holed plastic ring sit on the bottom of the reactors. The purpose of locating the plastic ring on the bottom of the reactor was to continuously provide upward mobility to the biocarriers. The design of the ring was specifically thought to the 3D printed gyroid carriers, whose physical properties reported by (Elliott et al., 2017) showed a tendency to sink into the water body.

The relative pressure generated by the air supply system was controlled by a 3 PSI pressure gauge that was regulated to operate at 0.6 PSI. To provide a controlled environment for the growing of the nitrifying bacteria, the reactors were submerged into a 6 liter water bath whose temperature was adjusted by water heaters preset at 25ºC.



A summary of the operational parameters of both reactors are shown on Table 4. The synthetic water was a 1.3 liter solution of the following components: 0.0195 g. CaCO3, 0.0455 g. NaHCO3, 0.0065 g. NH4Cl (5ppm), 2.6 ml Seachem Marinesalt solution (0.1ppm) in distilled water.  




Both biocarriers type were introduced into their reactors and the reactors started their air diffusions. 325 µL of Nitromax (Figure 4) was inoculated in both reactors the first day and 163 µL during the following days until the presence of nitrates was detected in the reactors. Daily evaporation losses of approximately 100 mL per day were determined in both reactors. For this reason, distilled water was refilled to keep the operational water volume.




The reactors’ daily pH, temperature, ammonia, ammonium, hardness and alkalinity were tracked to control the water quality. To keep pH in range (7.4-7.7) NaHCO3 was added. Hardness, alkalinity, nitrites and nitrates were monitored by test strips, and to monitor pH a HI 98130, Hanna Instruments, Woonsocket, Rhode Island pHmeter was required. Ammonia, ammonium, nitrites and nitrates tests were carried out by photometry using a YSI 9500 photometer (Figure 28). Once cycling, the reactors were set to operate in cycles. A description of these cycles is shown in Table 5.






4.2.4 Preliminary Observations for Experiment 2

After developing the methodology previously described for experiment 2, the preliminary results after running an 8.85 hour cycle shows a decrease on the TAN concentration of the treated water contained in both reactors. While the reactor with K1 biocarriers passed from 8.71 ppm to 7.92 ppm in 8 hours of reaction, the reactor with 3D printed carriers had a faster response passing from 2.18 ppm to 0.25 ppm under the same 8 hours of reaction (Figure 6).




The production of nitrates-nitrogen displayed on Figure 7 shows a better performance from the reactor with 3D printed carriers achieving a 0.452 ppm production of nitrates while the reactor with the traditional K1 carrier did not produce nitrates in the same amount of time.




Based on the observation from preliminary experiment 2, it was observed that there is a possibility that a faster TAN removal could be achieved from the MBSBBR operating with the 3D carriers, suggesting a full experimentation would be needed to draw a conclusion on this regard.


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Journal Articles on this Report : 2 Displayed | Download in RIS Format

Other project views: All 4 publications 2 publications in selected types All 2 journal articles
Type Citation Project Document Sources
Journal Article Blersch DM, Kangas PC, Mulbry WW. Turbulence and nutrient interactions that control benthic algal production in an engineered cultivation raceway. Algal Research 2013;2(2):107-112. SV836951 (2017)
  • Full-text: USDA-Full Text PDF
  • Abstract: ScienceDirect-Abstract
  • Journal Article Blersch DM, Kardel K, Carrano AL, Kaur M. Customized 3D-printed surface topography governs species attachment preferences in a fresh water periphyton community. Algal Research 2017:21:52-57. SV836951 (2017)
  • Abstract: ScienceDirect-Abstract

  • P3 Phase I:

    Development of 3D-printed surfaces for ultra-high surface area trickling biofilters for water pollution remediation  | Final Report