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Fixed Bed Sorption of Phosphorus from Wastewater Using Iron Oxide-Based Media Derived from Acid Mine Drainage


Phosphorus (P) releases to the environment have been implicated in the eutrophication of important water bodies worldwide. Current technology for the removal of P from wastewaters consists of treatment with aluminum (Al) or iron (Fe) salts, but is expensive. The neutralization of acid mine drainage (AMD) generates sludge rich in Fe and Al oxides that has hitherto been considered a waste product, but these sludges could serve as an economical adsorption media for the removal of P from wastewaters. Therefore, we have evaluated an AMD-derived media as a sorbent for P in fixed bed sorption systems. The homogenous surface diffusion model (HSDM) was used to analyze fixed bed test data and to determine the value of related sorption parameters. The surface diffusion modulus Ed was found to be a useful predictor of sorption kinetics. Values of Ed < 0.2 were associated with early breakthrough of P, while more desirable S-shaped breakthrough curves resulted when 0.2 < Ed < 0.5. Computer simulations of the fixed bed process with the HSDM confirmed that if Ed was known, the shape of the breakthrough curve could be calculated. The surface diffusion coefficient D s was a critical factor in the calculation of Ed and could be estimated based on the sorption test conditions such as media characteristics, and influent flow rate and concentration. Optimal test results were obtained with a relatively small media particle size (average particle radius 0.028 cm) and resulted in 96 % removal of P from the influent over 46 days of continuous operation. These results indicate that fixed bed sorption of P would be a feasible option for the utilization of AMD residues, thus helping to decrease AMD treatment costs while at the same time ameliorating the impacts of P contamination.

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    Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.



Biot number (dimensionless)

C :

Solution phase concentration (M/L3)

C 0 :

Influent solution concentration (M/L3)

D g :

Solute distribution parameter (dimensionless)


Dissolved reactive phosphorus (M/L3)

D s :

Surface diffusion coefficient (L2/t)


Empty bed contact time (t)


Surface diffusion modulus (dimensionless)


Hydraulic loading rate (L/t)

K F :

Freundlich isotherm coefficient ((L3/M)n)

k f :

Liquid phase mass transfer coefficient (L/t)

m :

Mass of adsorbent (M)

n :

Freundlich isotherm exponent (dimensionless)

q :

Solid phase concentration (M/M)

q e :

Solid phase concentration at equilibrium (M/M)

Q :

Liquid flow rate (L3/t)

R part :

Sorbent particle radius (L)


Stanton number (dimensionless)

t :

Time (t)

t sat :

Ideal time to media saturation (t)

T :

Normalized time (dimensionless)

ρ p :

Density of sorbent particle (M/L3)


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The authors thank Barnaby Watten, US Geological Survey, and David Hand, Michigan Technological University, for their comments and suggestions to improve the manuscript. We also thank Bill Sabatose, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, for his assistance in procuring samples of iron oxide sorption media from the Blue Valley Mine Drainage Treatment and Fish Culture Station in Brandy Camp, PA.

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Correspondence to P. L. Sibrell.

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Sibrell, P.L., Tucker, T.W. Fixed Bed Sorption of Phosphorus from Wastewater Using Iron Oxide-Based Media Derived from Acid Mine Drainage. Water Air Soil Pollut 223, 5105–5117 (2012).

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  • Acid mine drainage sludge
  • Eutrophication
  • Phosphorus removal
  • Fixed bed sorption
  • Homogenous surface diffusion model
  • Wastewater
  • Iron oxide sorption media