Friday, September 5, 2008

Water Purification

Water purification is the removal of contaminants from raw water to produce drinking water that is pure enough for human consumption or for industrial use. Substances that are removed during the process include parasites ( such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium) , bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi, minerals (including toxic metals such as Lead, Copper etc.), and man-made chemical pollutants. Many contaminants can be dangerous—but depending on the quality standards, others are removed to improve the water's smell, taste, and appearance. A small amount of disinfectant is usually intentionally left in the water at the end of the treatment process to reduce the risk of re-contamination in the distribution system.

Many environmental and cost considerations affect the location and design of water purification plants. Groundwater is cheaper to treat, but aquifers usually have limited output and can take thousands of years to recharge. Surface water sources should be carefully monitored for the presence of unusual types or levels of microbial/disease causing contaminants. The treatment plant itself must be kept secure from vandalism and terrorism.

It is not possible to tell whether water is safe to drink just by looking at it. Simple procedures such as boiling or the use of a household charcoal filter are not sufficient for treating water from an unknown source. Even natural spring water—considered safe for all practical purposes in the 1800s—must now be tested before determining what kind of treatment is needed.

Sources of Drinking Water
1. Deep groundwater: The water emerging from some deep groundwaters may have fallen as rain many decades or even hundreds of years ago. Soil and rock layers naturally filter the groundwater to a high degree of clarity before it is pumped to the treatment plant. Such water may emerge as springs, artesian springs, or may be extracted from boreholes or wells. Deep groundwater is generally of very high bacteriological quality (i.e., a low concentration of pathogenic bacteria such as Campylobacter or the pathogenic protozoa Cryptosporidium and Giardia) but may be rich in dissolved solids, especially carbonates and sulphates of calcium and magnesium. Depending on the strata through which the water has flowed, other ions may also be present including chloride, and bi-carbonate. There may be a requirement to reduce the iron or manganese content of this water to make it pleasant for drinking, cooking, and laundry use. Disinfection is also required. Where groundwater recharge is practised, it is equivalent to lowland surface waters for treatment purposes.

2. Shallow groundwaters: Water emerging from shallow groundwaters is usually abstracted from wells or boreholes. The bacteriological quality can be variable depending on the nature of the catchment. A variety of soluble materials may be present including potentially toxic metals such as zinc and copper. Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a serious problem in some areas, notably from shallow wells in Bangladesh and West Bengal in the Ganges Delta.

3. Upland lakes and reservoirs: Typically located in the headwaters of river systems, upland reservoirs are usually sited above any human habitation and may be surrounded by a protective zone to restrict the opportunities for contamination. Bacteria and pathogen levels are usually low, but some bacteria, protozoa or algae will be present. Where uplands are forested or peaty, humic acids can colour the water. Many upland sources have low pH which require adjustment.

4. Rivers, canals and low land reservoirs: Low land surface waters will have a significant bacterial load and may also contain algae, suspended solids and a variety of dissolved constituents.

5. Atmospheric water generation is a new technology that can provide high quality drinking water by extracting water from the air by cooling the air and thus condensing water vapour.

6. Rainwater harvesting or fog collection which collect water from the atmosphere can be used especially in areas with significant dry seasons and in areas which experience fog even when there is little rain .

Stages in typical municipal water treatment

There are three principal stages in water purification:-

1. Primary treatment - Collecting and screening including pumping from rivers and initial storage
2. Secondary treatment - removal of fine solids and the majority of contaminants using filters, coagulation, flocculation and membranes
3. Tertiary treatment - polishing, pH adjustment, carbon treatment to remove taste and smells, disinfection, and temporary storage to allow the disinfecting agent to work.

Primary Treatment

1. Pumping and containment - The majority of water must be pumped from its source or directed into pipes or holding tanks. To avoid adding contaminants to the water, this physical infrastructure must be made from appropriate materials and constructed so that accidental contamination does not occur.
2. Screening (see also Screen filter) - The first step in purifying surface water is to remove large debris such as sticks, leaves, trash and other large particles which may interfere with subsequent purification steps. Most deep Groundwater does not need screening before other purification steps.
3. Storage - Water from rivers may also be stored in bankside reservoirs for periods between a few days and many months to allow natural biological purification to take place. This is especially important if treatment is by slow sand filters. Storage reservoirs also provide a buffer against short periods of drought or to allow water supply to be maintained during transitory pollution incidents in the source river.
4. Pre-conditioning - Many waters rich in hardness salts are treated with soda-ash (Sodium carbonate)to precipitate calcium carbonate out utilising the common ion effect.
5. Pre-chlorination - In many plants the incoming water was chlorinated to minimise the growth of fouling organisms on the pipe-work and tanks. Because of the potential adverse quality effects (see Chlorine below), this has largely been discontinued.

Secondary treatment

There are a wide range of techniques that can be used to remove the fine solids, micro-organisms and some dissolved inorganic and organic materials. The choice of method will depend on the quality of the water being treated, the cost of the treatment process and the quality standards expected of the processed water.

1. pH adjustment - If the water is acidic, lime or soda ash is added to raise the pH. Lime is the more common of the two additives because it is cheaper, but it also adds to the resulting water hardness. Making the water slightly alkaline ensures that coagulation and flocculation processes work effectively and also helps to minimise the risk of lead being dissolved from lead pipes and lead solder in pipe fittings.

2. Coagulation and flocculation - Together, coagulation and flocculation are purification methods that work by using chemicals which effectively "glue" small suspended particles together, so that they settle out of the water or stick to sand or other granules in a granular media filter. Many of the suspended water particles have a negative electrical charge. The charge keeps particles suspended because they repel similar particles. Coagulation works by eliminating the natural electrical charge of the suspended particles so they attract and stick to each other. The joining of the particles so that they will form larger settleable particles is called flocculation. The larger formed particles are called floc. The coagulation chemicals are added in a tank (often called a rapid mix tank or flash mixer), which typically has rotating paddles. In most treatment plants, the mixture remains in the tank for 10 to 30 seconds to ensure full mixing. The amount of coagulant that is added to the water varies widely due to the different source water quality.

One of the more common coagulants used is aluminum sulfate, sometimes called filter alum. Aluminum sulfate reacts with water to form flocs of aluminium hydroxide.

Coagulation with aluminum compounds may leave a residue of aluminium in the finished water. This is normally about 0.1 to 0.15 mg/L. It has been established that Aluminium can be toxic to humans at high concentrations.

Iron(II) sulfate or iron (III) chloride are other common coagulants. Iron(III) coagulants work over a larger pH range than aluminum sulfate but are not effective with many source waters. Other benefits of iron(III) are lower costs and in some cases slightly better removal of natural organic contaminants from some waters. Coagulation with iron compounds typically leaves a residue of iron in the finished water. This may impart a slight taste to the water, and may cause brownish stains on porcelain fixtures. The trace levels of iron are not harmful to humans, and indeed provide a needed trace mineral. Because the taste and stains may lead to customer complaints, aluminium tends to be favoured over iron for coagulation.

Cationic and other polymers can also be used. They are often called coagulant aids used in conjunction with other inorganic coagulants. The long chains of positively charged polymers can help to strengthen the floc making it larger, faster settling and easier to filter out. The main advantages of polymer coagulants and aids are that they do not need the water to be alkaline to work and that they produce less settled waste than other coagulants, which can reduce operating costs. The drawbacks of polymers are that they are expensive, can blind sand filters and that they often have a very narrow range of effective doses.

3. Flocculation - In flocculation coagulants are used but the resultant floc is settled out rather than filtered through sand filters. The chosen coagulant and the raw water is slowly mixed in a large tank called a flocculation basin. Unlike a rapid mix tank, the flocculation paddles turn very slowly to minimise turbulence. The principle involved is to allow as many particles to contact other particles as possible generating large and robust floc particles. Generally, the retention time of a flocculation basin is at least 30 minutes with speeds between 0.5 feet and 1.5 feet per minute (15 to 45 cm / minute). Flow rates less than 0.5 ft/min cause undesirable floc settlement within the basin.

4. Sedimentation -Water exiting the flocculation basin enters the sedimentation basin, also called a clarifier or settling basin. It is a large tank with slow flow, allowing floc to settle to the bottom. The sedimentation basin is best located close to the flocculation basin so the transit between does not permit settlement or floc break up. Sedimentation basins can be in the shape of a rectangle, where water flows from end to end, or circular where flow is from the center outward. Sedimentation basin outflow is typically over a weir so only a thin top layer-furthest from the sediment-exits.The amount of floc that settles out of the water is dependent on the time the water spends in the basin and the depth of the basin. The retention time of the water must therefore be balanced against the cost of a larger basin. The minimum clarifier retention time is normally 4 hours. A deep basin will allow more floc to settle out than a shallow basin. This is because large particles settle faster than smaller ones, so large particles bump into and integrate smaller particles as they settle. In effect, large particles sweep vertically though the basin and clean out smaller particles on their way to the bottom.

As particles settle to the bottom of the basin a layer of sludge is formed on the floor of the tank. This layer of sludge must be removed and treated. The amount of sludge that is generated is significant, often 3%-5% of the total volume of water that is treated. The cost of treating and disposing of the sludge can be a significant part of the operating cost of a water treatment plant. The tank may be equipped with mechanical cleaning devices that continually clean the bottom of the tank or the tank can be taken out of service when the bottom needs to be cleaned.

An increasingly popular method of floc removal is by dissolved air flotation. A proportion of clarified water, typical 5-10% of throughput, is recycled and air is dissolved in it under pressure. This is injected into the bottom of the clarifier tank where tiny air bubbles are formed which attach themselves to the floc particles and float them to the surface. A sludge blanket is formed which is periodically removed using mechanical scrapers. This method is very efficient at floc removal and reduces loading on filters, however it is unsuitable for water sources with a high concentration of sediment.

5. Filtration - After separating most floc, the water is filtered as the final step to remove remaining suspended particles and unsettled floc. The most common type of filter is a rapid sand filter. Water moves vertically through sand which often has a layer of activated carbon or anthracite coal above the sand. The top layer removes organic compounds including taste and odour. The space between sand particles is larger than the smallest suspended particles, so simple filtration is not enough. Most particles pass through surface layers but are trapped in pore spaces or adhere to sand particles. Effective filtration extends into the depth of the filter. This property of the filter is key to its operation: if the top layer of sand were to block all the particles, the filter would quickly clog.

To clean the filter, water is passed quickly upward through the filter, opposite the normal direction (called backflushing or backwashing) to remove embedded particles. Prior to this, compressed air may be blown up through the bottom of the filter to break up the compacted filter media to aid the backwashing process; this is known as air scouring. This contaminated water can be disposed of, along with the sludge from the sedimentation basin, or it can be recycled by mixing with the raw water entering the plant.

Some water treatment plants employ pressure filters. These work on the same principle as rapid gravity filters differing in that the filter medium is enclosed in a steel vessel and the water is forced through it under pressure.

6. Slow sand filters may be used where there is sufficient land and space. These rely on biological treatment processes for their action rather than physical filtration. Slow sand filters are carefully constructed using graded layers of sand with the coarsest at the base and the finest at the top. Drains at the base convey treated water away for disinfection. Filtration depends on the development of a thin biological layer on the surface of the filter. An effective slow sand filter may remain in service for many weeks or even months if the pre-treatment is well designed and produces an excellent quality of water which physical methods of treatment rarely achieve.

7. Ultrafiltration membranes are a relatively new development; they use polymer film with chemically formed microscopic pores that can be used in place of granular media to filter water effectively without coagulants. The type of membrane media determines how much pressure is needed to drive the water through and what sizes of micro-organisms can be filtered out.

Tertiary treatment

Disinfection is normally the last step in purifying drinking water. Water is disinfected to destroy any pathogens which passed through the filters. Possible pathogens include viruses, bacteria, including Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Shigella, and protozoans, including G. lamblia and other Cryptosporidia. In most developed countries, public water supplies are required to maintain a residual disinfecting agent throughout the distribution system, in which water may remain for days before reaching the consumer. Following the introduction of any chemical disinfecting agent, the water is usually held in temporary storage - often called a contact tank or clear well to allow the disinfecting action to complete.

1. Chlorine- The most common disinfection method is some form of chlorine or its compounds such as chloramine or chlorine dioxide. Chlorine is a strong oxidant that kills many micro-organisms.

Because chlorine is a toxic gas, there is a danger of a release associated with its use. This problem is avoided by the use of sodium hypochlorite, which is a relatively inexpensive solid that releases free chlorine when dissolved in water. Handling the solid, however, requires greater routine human contact through opening bags and pouring than the use of gas cylinders which are more easily automated. Both disinfectants are widely used despite their respective drawbacks. A major drawback to using chlorine gas or sodium hypochlorite is that they react with organic compounds in the water to form potentially harmful levels of the chemical by-products trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids, both of which are carcinogenic and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The formation of THMs and haloacetic acids is minimised by effective removal of as many organics from the water as possible before disinfection. Although chlorine is effective in killing bacteria, it has limited effectiveness against protozoans that form cysts in water. (Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium, both of which are pathogenic).

2. Chlorine dioxide is another fast-acting disinfectant. It is, however, rarely used, because it may create excessive amounts of chlorate and chlorite, both of which are regulated to low allowable levels. Chlorine dioxide also poses extreme risks in handling: not only is the gas toxic, but it may spontaneously detonate upon release to the atmosphere in an accident.

3. Chloramines are another chlorine-based disinfectant. Although chloramines are not as effective as disinfectants, compared to chlorine gas or sodium hypochlorite, they are less prone to form THMs or haloacetic acids. It is possible to convert chlorine to chloramine by adding ammonia to the water along with the chlorine: The chlorine and ammonia react to form chloramine. Water distribution systems disinfected with chloramines may experience nitrification, wherein ammonia is used a nitrogen source for bacterial growth, with nitrates being generated as a byproduct.

4. Ozone (O3) is a relatively unstable molecule of oxygen which readily gives up one atom of oxygen providing a powerful oxidising agent which is toxic to most water borne organisms. It is a very strong, broad spectrum disinfectant that is widely used in Europe. It is an effective method to inactivate harmful protozoans that form cysts. It also works well against almost all other pathogens. Ozone is made by passing oxygen through ultraviolet light or a "cold" electrical discharge. To use ozone as a disinfectant, it must be created on site and added to the water by bubble contact. Some of the advantages of ozone include the production of relatively fewer dangerous by-products (in comparison to chlorination) and the lack of taste and odor produced by ozonation. Although fewer by-products are formed by ozonation, it has been discovered that the use of ozone produces a small amount of the suspected carcinogen Bromate. Another one of the main disadvantages of ozone is that it leaves no disinfectant residual in the water. Ozone has been used in drinking water plants since 1906 where the first industrial ozonation plant was built in Nice, France. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has accepted ozone as being safe; and it is applied as an anti-microbiological agent for the treatment, storage, and processing of foods.

5. UV radiation is very effective at inactivating cysts, as long as the water has a low level of colour so the UV can pass through without being absorbed. The main drawback to the use of UV radiation is that, like ozone treatment, it leaves no residual disinfectant in the water.

Because neither ozone nor UV radiation leaves a residual disinfectant in the water, it is sometimes necessary to add a residual disinfectant after they are used. This is often done through the addition of chloramines, discussed above as a primary disinfectant. When used in this manner, chloramines provide an effective residual disinfectant with very little of the negative aspects of chlorination.

Additional treatment options

1. Fluoridation -in many areas fluoride is added to water for the purpose of preventing tooth decay. This process is referred to as water fluoridation. Fluoride is usually added after the disinfection process. In the United States, fluoridation is usually accomplished by the addition of dihydrogen hexafluorosilicate, which decomposes in water, yielding fluoride ions.

2. Water conditioning: This is a method of reducing the effects of hard water. Hardness salts are deposited in water systems subject to heating because the decomposition of bicarbonate ions creates carbonate ions which crystalise out of the saturated solution of calcium or magnesium carbonate. Water with high concentrations of hardness salts can be treated with soda ash (sodium carbonate) which precipitates out the excess salts, through the common ion effect, as calcium carbonate of very high purity. The preciptated calcium carbonate is traditionally sold to the manufacturers of toothpaste. Several other methods of industrial and residential water treatment are claimed (without general scientific acceptance) to include the use of magnetic or/and electrical fields reducing the effects of hard water.

3. Plumbo-solvency reduction: In areas with naturally acidic waters of low conductivity (i.e surface rainfall in upland mountains of igneous rocks), the water is capable of dissolving lead from any lead pipes that it is carried in. The addition of small quantities of phosphate ion and increasing the pH slightly both assist in greatly reducing plumbo-solvency by creating insoluble lead salts on the inner surfaces of the pipes.

4. Radium Removal: Some groundwater sources contain radium, a radioactive chemical element, including many groundwater sources north of the Illinois River in Illinois. Radium can be removed by ion exchange, or by water conditioning. The back flush or sludge that is produced is, however, a low-level radioactive waste.

5. Fluoride Removal: Although fluoride is added to water in many areas, some areas of the world have excessive levels of natural fluoride in the source water. Excessive levels can be toxic. One method of reducing fluoride levels is through treatment with activated alumina.

Other water purification techniques

Other popular methods for purifying water, especially for local private supplies are listed below. In some countries some of these methods are also used for large scale municipal supplies. Particularly important are distillation (de-salination of seawater) and reverse osmosis.

1. Boiling: Water is heated hot enough and long enough to inactivate or kill microorganisms that normally live in water at room temperature. Near sea level, a vigorous rolling boil for at least one minute is sufficient. At high altitudes (greater than two kilometers or 5000 feet) three minutes is recommended. US EPA emergency disinfection recommendations In areas where the water is "hard" (that is, containing significant dissolved calcium salts), boiling decomposes the bicarbonate ions, resulting in partial precipitation as calcium carbonate. This is the "fur" that builds up on kettle elements, etc., in hard water areas. With the exception of calcium, boiling does not remove solutes of higher boiling point than water and in fact increases their concentration (due to some water being lost as vapour). Boiling does not leave a residual disinfectant in the water. Therefore, water that has been boiled and then stored for any length of time may have acquired new pathogens.

2. Carbon filtering: Charcoal, a form of carbon with a high surface area, absorbs many compounds including some toxic compounds. Water passing through activated charcoal is common in household water filters and fish tanks. Household filters for drinking water sometimes contain silver to release silver ions which have a bactericidal effect.

3. Distillation involves boiling the water to produce water vapour. The vapour contacts a cool surface where it condenses as a liquid. Because the solutes are not normally vaporised, they remain in the boiling solution. Even distillation does not completely purify water, because of contaminants with similar boiling points and droplets of unvaporised liquid carried with the steam. However, 99.9% pure water can be obtained by distillation. Distillation does not confer any residual disinfectant and the distillation apparatus may be the ideal place to harbour Legionnaires' disease.

4. Reverse osmosis: Mechanical pressure is applied to an impure solution to force pure water through a semi-permeable membrane. Reverse osmosis is theoretically the most thorough method of large scale water purification available, although perfect semi-permeable membranes are difficult to create. Unless membranes are well-maintained, algae and other life forms can colonise the membranes.

5. Ion exchange: Most common ion exchange systems use a zeolite resin bed to replace unwanted Ca2+ and Mg2+ ions with benign (soap friendly) Na+ or K+ ions. This is the common water softener.

6. Electrodeionization: Water is passed between a positive electrode and a negative electrode. Ion selective membranes allow the positive ions to separate from the water toward the negative electrode and the negative ions toward the positive electrode. High purity deionized water results. The water is usually passed through a reverse osmosis unit first to remove non-ionic organic contaminants.

Water purification for hydrogen production

For small scale production of hydrogen water purifiers are installed to prevent formation of minerals on the surface of the electrodes and to remove organics and chlorine from utility water. First the water passes through a 20 micrometre interference (mesh or screen filter) filter to remove sand and dust particles, second, a charcoal filter (activated carbon) to remove organics and chlorine, third stage, a de-ionizing filter to remove metallic ions. A test can be done before and after the filter for proper functioning on barium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and silicon.

Another used method is reverse osmosis.


* Masters, Gilbert M. Introduction to Environmental Engineering. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.
* United States EPA Ground and Drinking Water Homepage. EPA Ground and Drinking Water Homepage Visited 12/13/05
* Viessman, Warren, and Mark J. Hammer. Water Supply and Pollution Control. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.