Activated carbon is commonly used to adsorb natural organic compounds, taste and odor compounds, and synthetic organic chemicals in drinking water treatment. Adsorption is both the physical and chemical process of accumulating a substance at the interface between liquid and solids phases. Activated carbon is an effective adsorbent because it is a highly porous material and provides a large surface area to which contaminants may adsorb. The two main types of activated carbon used in water treatment applications are granular activated carbon (GAC) and powdered activated carbon (PAC).

GAC is made from organic materials with high carbon contents such as wood, lignite and coal. The primary characteristic that differentiates GAC to PAC is its particle size. GAC typically has a diameter ranging between 1.2 to 1.6 mm and an apparent density ranging between 25 and 31 lb/ft3), depending on the material used and manufacturing process. The bed density is about 10 percent less than the apparent density and is used to determine the amount of GAC required to fill a given size filter. The uniformity coefficient of GAC is quite large, typically about 1.9, to promote stratification after backwashing and minimize desorption and premature breakthrough that can result from mixing activated carbon particles with adsorbed compounds with activated carbon particles with smaller amounts of adsorbed compounds. Iodine and molasses numbers are typically used to characterize GAC. These numbers describe the quantity of small and large pore volumes in a sample of GAC. A minimum iodine number of 500 is specified for activated carbon by AWWA standards.

The two most common options for locating a GAC treatment unit in water treatment plants are: (1) post-filtration adsorption, where the GAC unit is located after the conventional filtration process (post-filter contactors or adsorbers); and (2) filtration-adsorption, in which some or all of the filter media in a granular media filter is replaced with GAC. Examples of these configurations are shown in Figures 1 and 2, respectively.

In post-filtration applications, the GAC contactor receives the highest quality water and, thus, has as its only objective the removal of dissolved organic compounds. Backwashing of these adsorbers is usually unnecessary, unless excessive biological growth occurs. This option provides the most flexibility for handling GAC and for designing specific adsorption conditions by providing longer contact times than filter-adsorbers.

In addition to dissolved organics removal, the filter-adsorber configuration uses the GAC for turbidity and solids removal, and biological stabilization. Existing rapid sand filters can frequently be retrofitted for filtration-adsorption by replacing all or a portion of the granular media with GAC. Retrofitting existing high rate granular media filters can significantly reduce capital costs since no additional filter boxes, underdrains and backwashing systems may be required. However, filter-adsorbers have shorter filter run times and must be backwashed more frequently than post-filter adsorbers (filter-adsorber units are backwashed about as frequently as conventional high rate granular filters). In addition, filter-adsorbers may incur greater carbon losses because of increased backwashing and may cost more to operate because carbon usage is less effective.

Primary factors in determining the required GAC contactor volume are the (1) breakthrough, (2) empty bed contact time (EBCT), and (3) design flow rate. The breakthrough time is the time when the concentration of a contaminant in the effluent of the GAC unit exceeds the treatment requirement. As a rule of thumb, if the GAC effluent concentration is greater than the performance standard for over three consecutive days, the GAC is exhausted and must be replaced/regenerated. The EBCT is calculated as the empty bed volume divided by the flowrate through the carbon. Longer EBCTs can be achieved by increasing the bed volume or reducing the flow rate through the filter. The EBCT and the design flow rate define the amount of carbon to be contained in the adsorption units. A longer EBCT can delay breakthrough and reduce the GAC replacement/regeneration frequency. The carbon depth and adsorber volume can be determined once the optimum EBCT is established. Typical EBCTs for water treatment applications range between 5 to 25 minutes.

The surface loading rate for GAC filters is the flow rate through a given area of GAC filter bed and is expressed in units of gpm/ft2. Surface loading rates for GAC filters typically range between 2 to 10 gpm/ft2. High surface loading rates can be used when highly adsorbable compounds (such as SOCs) are targeted for removal. The surface loading rate is not important when mass transfer is controlled by the rate of adsorption as is the case for less-adsorbable compounds.

The carbon usage rate (CUR) determines the rate at which carbon will be exhausted and how often carbon must be replaced/regenerated. Carbon treatment effectiveness improves with increasing contact times. Deeper beds will increase the percentage of carbon that is exhausted at breakthrough. The optimum bed depth and volume are typically selected after carefully evaluating capital and operating costs associated with reactivation frequency and contactor construction costs.

GAC contactors can be configured as either (1) downflow fixed beds, (2) upflow fixed or expanded beds, or (3) pulsed beds; with single or multiple adsorbers operated in series or in parallel. In downflow fixed beds in series, each unit is connected in series with the first adsorber receiving the highest contaminant loading and the last unit receiving the lightest contaminant load. Carbon is removed for reactivation from the first unit, with the next adsorber becoming the lead unit. For downflow fixed beds in parallel, each unit receives the same flow and contaminant load. To maximize carbon usage, multiple contactors are frequently operated in parallel-staggered mode in which each contactor is at a different stage of carbon exhaustion. Since effluent from each contactor is blended, individual contactors can be operated beyond breakthrough such that the blended flow still meets the treatment goal. Upflow expanded beds permit removal of suspended solids by periodic bed expansion and allow using smaller carbon particles without significantly increasing head loss. In pulsed bed adsorbers, removal of spent carbon occurs from the bottom of the bed while fresh carbon is added at the top without system shutdown. A pulsed bed cannot be completely exhausted, which prevents contaminant breakthrough in the effluent.

Depending on the economics, facilities may have on-site or off-site regeneration systems or may waste spent carbon and replace it with new. Spent GAC must be disposed of recognizing that contaminants can be desorbed, which can potentially result in leaching of contaminants from the spent GAC when exposed to percolating water, contaminating soils or groundwater. Due to contamination concerns, spent GAC regeneration is typically favored over disposal. The three most common GAC regeneration methods are steam, thermal and chemical; of which thermal regeneration is the most common method used. Available thermal regeneration technologies used to remove adsorbed organics from activated carbon include: (1) electric infrared ovens, (2) fluidized bed furnaces, (3) multiple hearth furnaces, and (4) rotary kilns.


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