A continuous process for the biological treatment of heavy metal contaminated acid mine water

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Resources, Conservation and Recycling

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University of Cape Town

Alkaline precipitation of heavy metals from acidic water streams is a popular and long standing treatment process. While this process is efficient it requires the continuous addition of an alkaline material, such as lime. In the long term or when treating large volumes of effluent this process becomes expensive, with costs in the mining sector routinely exceeding millions of rands annually. The process described below utilises alkalinity generated by the alga Spirulina sp., in a continuous system to precipitate heavy metals. The design of the system separates the algal component from the metal containing stream to overcome metal toxicity. The primary treatment process consistently removed over 99% of the iron (98.9 mg/l) and between 80 and 95% of the zinc (7.16 mg/l) and lead (2.35 mg/l) over a 14-day period (20 l effluent treated). In addition the pH of the raw effluent was increased from 1.8 to over 7 in the post-treatment stream. Secondary treatment and polishing steps depend on the nature of the effluent treated. In the case of the high sulphate effluent the treated stream was passed into an anaerobic digester at a rate of 4 l/day. The combination of the primary and secondary treatments effected a removal of over 95% of all metals tested for as well as a 90% reduction in the sulphate load. The running cost of such a process would be low as the salinity and nutrient requirements for the algal culture could be provided by using tannery effluent or a combination of saline water and sewage. This would have the additional benefit of treating either a tannery or sewage effluent as part of an integrated process.