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Bioelectrochemical reactor to manage anthropogenic sulfate pollution for freshwater ecosystems: Mathematical modeling and experimental validation

by Matthew J Berens, Tobin Deen, Chan Lan Chun
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Anthropogenic sulfate loading into otherwise low-sulfate freshwater systems can cause significant ecological consequences as a biogeochemical stressor. To address this challenge, in situ bioremediation technologies have been developed to leverage naturally occurring microorganisms that transform sulfate into sulfide rather than implementing resource-intensive physio-chemical processes. However, bioremediation technologies often require the supply of electron donors to facilitate biological sulfate reduction. Bioelectrochemical systems (BES) can be an alternative approach for supplying molecular hydrogen as an electron donor for sulfate-reducing bacteria through water electrolysis. Although the fundamental mechanisms behind BESs have been studied, limited research has evaluated the design and operational parameters of treatment systems when developing BESs on a scale relevant to environmental systems. This study aimed to develop an application-based mathematical model to evaluate the performance of BESs across a range of reactor configurations and operational modes. The model was based on sulfate transformation by hydrogenotrophic sulfate-reducing bacteria coupled with the recovery of solid iron sulfide species formed by the oxidative dissolution of dissolved ferrous iron from a stainless steel anode. Sulfate removal closely corresponded to the rate of electrolytic hydrogen production and hydraulic residence time but was less sensitive to specific microbial rate constants. The mathematical model results were compared to experimental data from a pilot-scale BES tested with nonacidic mine drainage as a case study. The close agreement between the mathematical model and the pilot-scale BES experiment highlights the efficacy of using a mathematical model as a tool to develop a conceptual design of a scaled-up treatment system.