A review: organic matter and ammonia removal by biological activated carbon filtration for water and wastewater treatment

  • P. R. dos SantosEmail author
  • L. A. Daniel


Biological activated carbon filters provide solutions to remove organic matter from drinking water and municipal wastewater, mainly biodegradable organic compounds not easily removed in conventional treatments based on physical–chemical processes. These biodegradable organic compounds may be responsible for bacterial regrowth in water distribution systems and also for increasing the formation of by-products during disinfection processes due to their capacity to react with disinfectants such as chlorine. Simultaneously to organic matter removal, biological activated carbon filtration can potentially remove the nutrient nitrogen commonly present in contaminated water resources and municipal wastewater, especially under the form of ammonia which is very harmful when discharged into the environment and toxic to living organisms. Thus, the potential of biological activated carbon filters in removing organic matter and ammonia for the treatment of drinking water and wastewater was reviewed. Operating parameters, such as contact time, backwashing regime and filtration rate, adopted for the filter operation and the biofilm growth in the activated carbon media were also discussed, as they may influence the treatment performance. Various scientific studies point out the remarkable ability of activated carbons to adsorb organic matter when compared to their performance for organic matter biodegradation. However, strategies to enhance the biological activity, and consequently biodegradation efficiency should be considered. These strategies, for instance, can include operational changes in contact times or in backwashing regimes. Investigations related to organic matter removal in biological activated carbon filters are more explored when compared to ammonia removal; however, high efficiencies of ammonia removal have been reported.


Activated carbon Biofilters Biological activity Nitrogen Operating parameters Organic compounds 



This work was supported by the Coordination for The Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), process 2012/50522-0.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Agudosi ES, Abdullah EC, Mubarak NM et al (2018) Pilot study of in-line continuous flocculation water treatment plant. J Environ Chem Eng 6:7185–7191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aktaş Ö, Çeçen F (2007) Bioregeneration of activated carbon: a review. Int Biodeterior Biodegrad 59:257–272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alslaibi TM, Abustan I, Ahmad MA, Foul AA (2013) A review: production of activated carbon from agricultural byproducts via conventional and microwave heating. J Chem Technol Biotechnol 88:1183–1190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andersson A, Laurent P, Kihn A et al (2001) Impact of temperature on nitrification in biological activated carbon (BAC) filters used for drinking water treatment. Environ Technol 35:2923–2934Google Scholar
  5. Areerachakul N (2014) Performance of granular activated carbon comparing with Activated Carbon (bagasse) biofiltration in wastewater treatment. In: World Congress on Sustainable Technologies (WCST-2014), pp 31–34Google Scholar
  6. Aryal A, Sathasivan A, Adhikari RA (2011) Evidence that BAC treatment enhances the DOC removal by enhanced coagulation. Desalination 280:326–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bakke R, Trulear MG, Robinson JA et al (1984) Activity of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in biofilms: steady state. Biotechnol Bioeng 26:1418–1424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bansal RC, Goyal M (2005) Activated carbon adsorption. CRC Press, Boca RatonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Benstoem F, Nahrstedt A, Boehler M et al (2017) Performance of granular activated carbon to remove micropollutants from municipal wastewater—a meta-analysis of pilot and large scale studies. Chemosphere 185:105–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bichai F, Barbeau B, Dullemont Y, Hijnen W (2010) Role of predation by zooplankton in transport and fate of protozoan (oo)cysts in granular activated carbon filtration. Water Res 44:1072–1081CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Boon N, Pycke BFG, Marzorati M, Hammes F (2011) Nutrient gradients in a granular activated carbon biofilter drives bacterial community organization and dynamics. Water Res 45:6355–6361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chen Q, Ni J (2011) Heterotrophic nitrification–aerobic denitrification by novel isolated bacteria. J Ind Microbiol Biotechnol 38:1305–1310CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chien CC, Kao CM, Chen CW et al (2008) Application of biofiltration system on AOC removal: column and field studies. Chemosp 71:1786–1793CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. De Prá MC, Kunz A, Bortoli M et al (2016) Kinetic models for nitrogen inhibition in ANAMMOX and nitrification process on deammonification system at room temperature. Bioresour Technol 202:33–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Emelko M, Huck PM, Coffey BM, Smith EF (2006) Effects of media, backwash, and temperature on full-scale biological filtration. J AWWA 98:61–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Feng S, Xie S, Zhang X et al (2012) Ammonium removal pathways and microbial community in GAC-sand dual media filter in drinking water treatment. J Environ Sci 24:1587–1593CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Feng S, Chen C, Wang QF et al (2013) Characterization of microbial communities in a granular activated carbon–sand dual media filter for drinking water treatment. Int J Environ Sci Technol 10(5):917–922CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ghosh U, Weber AS, Jensen JN et al (1999) Granular activated carbon and biological activated carbon treatment of dissolved and sorbed polychlorinated biphenyls. Water Environ Res 71:232–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gibert O, Lefèvre B, Fernández M et al (2013) Characterising biofilm development on granular activated carbon used for drinking water production. Water Res 47:1101–1110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hoang TTL, Shon HK, Chaudhary DS et al (2004) Granular activated carbon (GAC) biofilter for low strength wastewater treatment. Fluid Part Sep J 16:185–191Google Scholar
  21. Hoang TTL, Vigneswaran S, Ngo HH et al (2008) Performance evaluation and mathematical modelling of granular activated carbon biofiltration in wastewater treatment. Korean J Chem Eng 25:259–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ikhlef S, Basu OD (2017) Influence of backwash regime on biofilter performance in drinking water treatment. J Chem Technol Biotechnol 92:1777–1784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jin P, Jin X, Wang X, et al (2013) Biological activated carbon treatment process for advanced water and wastewater treatment. In: Matovic MD (ed) Biomass now-cultivation and utilization. InTech, pp 153–192Google Scholar
  24. Kaarela OE, Härkki HA, Palmroth MRT et al (2015) Bacterial diversity and active biomass in full-scale granular activated carbon filters operated at low water temperatures. Environ Technol 36:681–692CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kalkan Ç, Yapsakli K, Mertoglu B et al (2011) Evaluation of biological activated carbon (BAC) process in wastewater treatment secondary effluent for reclamation purposes. Desalination 265:266–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kennedy AM, Reinert AM, Knappe DRU, Summers RS (2017) Prediction of full-scale GAC adsorption of organic micropollutants. Environ Eng Sci 34:496–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kim D, Lee D, Keller J (2006) Effect of temperature and free ammonia on nitrification and nitrite accumulation in landfill leachate and analysis of its nitrifying bacterial community by FISH. Biores Technol 97:459–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kim TG, Yun J, Hong S (2014) Effects of water temperature and backwashing on bacterial population and community in a biological activated carbon process at a water treatment plant. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 98:1417–1427CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Korotta-gamage SM, Sathasivan A (2017a) A review: potential and challenges of biologically activated carbon to remove natural organic matter in drinking water purification process. Chemosphere 167:120–138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Korotta-Gamage SM, Sathasivan A (2017b) Potential of a biologically activated carbon treatment to remove organic carbon from surface waters. Int Biodeterior Biodegrad 124:82–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Laurent P, Kihn A, Andersson A, Servais P (2003) Impact of backwashing on nitrification in the biological activated carbon filters used in drinking water treatment. Environ Technol 24:277–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Li X, Yang Y, Liu L et al (2010) Invertebrate community characteristics in biologically active carbon filter. J Environ Sci 22:648–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Li Q, Yu S, Li L et al (2017) Microbial communities shaped by treatment processes in a drinking water treatment plant and their contribution and threat to drinking water safety. Front Microbiol 8:1–16Google Scholar
  34. Liao X, Chen C, Chang C et al (2012) Heterogeneity of microbial community structures inside the up-flow biological activated carbon (BAC) filters for the treatment of drinking water. Biotechnol Bioprocess Eng 17:881–886CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Liao X, Chen C, Wang Z et al (2013) Changes of biomass and bacterial communities in biological activated carbon filters for drinking water treatment. Process Biochem 48:312–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Liao X, Chen C, Zhang J, Dai Y (2015) Operational performance, biomass and microbial community structure: impacts of backwashing on drinking water biofilter. Environ Sci Pollut Res 22:546–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Liu J, Zhang X, Wang Z (2008) Nitrification and denitrification in biological activated carbon filter for treating high ammonia source water. Front Environ Sci Eng 2:94–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lohwacharin J, Yang Y, Watanabe N, et al (2011) Characterization of DOM removal by full-scale biological activated carbon (BAC) filters having different ages. In: IWA specialty conference on natural organic matter, pp 1–15Google Scholar
  39. Lohwacharin J, Phetrak A, Takizawa S et al (2015) Bacterial growth during the start-up period of pilot-scale biological activated carbon filters: effects of residual ozone and chlorine and backwash intervals. Process Biochem 50:1640–1647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Magic-Knezev A, Wullings B, Kooij DV (2009) Polaromonas and Hydrogenophaga species are the predominant bacteria cultured from granular activated carbon filters in water treatment. J Appl Microbiol 107:1457–1467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Marsh H, Rodriguez-Reinoso F (2006) Activated Carbon. Elsevier, AmsterdamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Marshall KC (1986) Adsorption and adhesion processes in microbial growth at interfaces. Advanc Coll Interf Sci 25:59–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Moore BC, Cannon FS, Westrick JA et al (2001) Changes in GAC pore structure during full-scale water treatment at Cincinnati: a comparison between virgin and thermally reactivated GAC. Carbon 39:789–807CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Moreno-Castilla C (2004) Adsorption of organic molecules from aqueous solutions on carbon materials. Carbon 42:83–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nguyen ST, Roddick FA (2010) Effects of ozonation and biological activated carbon filtration on membrane fouling in ultrafiltration of an activated sludge effluent. J Membr Sci 363:271–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Niemi RM, Heiskanen I, Heine R, Rapala J (2009) Previously uncultured b-Proteobacteria dominate in biologically active granular activated carbon (BAC) filters. Water Res 43:5075–5086CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Niquette P, Prévost M, Maclean RG et al (1998) Backwashing first-stage sand-BAC filters. J AWWA 90:86–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nishijima W, Speitel GE (2004) Fate of biodegradable dissolved organic carbon produced by ozonation on biological activated carbon. Chemosphere 56:113–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pontius FW (1999) Complying with future: water regulations. J AWWA 91:46–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pramanik BK, Roddick FA, Fan L (2014) Effect of biological activated carbon pre-treatment to control organic fouling in the microfiltration of biologically treated secondary effluent. Water Res 63:147–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Qi W, Li W, Zhang J et al (2019) Effect of biological activated carbon filter depth and backwashing process on transformation of biofilm community. Front Environ Sci Eng 13:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Qin W, Li WG, Zhang DY et al (2016) Ammonium removal of drinking water at low temperature by activated carbon filter biologically enhanced with heterotrophic nitrifying bacteria. Environ Sci Pollut Res 23:4650–4659CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Qin W, Li W, Gong X et al (2017) Seasonal-related effects on ammonium removal in activated carbon filter biologically enhanced by heterotrophic nitrifying bacteria for drinking water treatment. Environ Sci Pollut Res 24:19569–19582CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Reungoat J, Macova M, Escher BI et al (2010) Removal of micropollutants and reduction of biological activity in a full scale reclamation plant using ozonation and activated carbon filtration. Water Res 44:625–637CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Reungoat J, Escher BI, Macova M, Keller J (2011) Biofiltration of wastewater treatment plant effluent: effective removal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products and reduction of toxicity. Water Res 45:2751–2762CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Reungoat J, Escher BI, Macova M et al (2012) Ozonation and biological activated carbon filtration of wastewater treatment plant effluents. Water Res 46:863–872CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rhim JA (2006) Characteristics of adsorption and biodegradation of dissolved organic carbon in biological activated carbon pilot plant. Korean J Chem Eng 23:38–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Rodríguez-Reinoso F, Molina-Sabio M, Gonzalez MT (1995) The use of steam and carbon dioxide as activating agents in the preparation of activated carbons. Carbon 33:15–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Scholz M, Martin RJ (1997) Ecological equilibrium on biological activated carbon. Water Res 31:2959–2968CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Servais BP, Billen G, Bouillot P (1994) Biological colonization of granular activated-carbon (GAC) filters in drinking-water treatment. J Environ Eng 120:888–899CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Shim WG, Chaudhary DS, Vigneswaran S et al (2004) Mathematical modeling of granular activated carbon (GAC) biofiltration system. Korean J Chem Eng 21:212–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Simpson DR (2008) Biofilm processes in biologically active carbon water purification. Water Res 42:2839–2848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Su J, Zhang K, Huang T et al (2015) Heterotrophic nitrification and aerobic denitrification at low nutrient conditions by a newly isolated bacterium, Acinetobacter sp. SYF26. Microbiol 161:829–837CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Tian JY, Chen ZL, Liang H et al (2009) Comparison of biological activated carbon (BAC) and membrane bioreactor (MBR) for pollutants removal in drinking water treatment. Water Sci Technol 60:1515–1523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Urfer D, Huck PM, Booth SDJ, Coffey BM (1997) Biological filtration for BOM and particle removal: a critical review. J AWWA 89:83–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. USEPA—US Environmental Protection Agency (1993) Manual-Nitrogen Control. EPA/625/R-93/010Google Scholar
  67. Vahala R, Niemi RM, Kiuru H, Laukkanen R (1999) The effect of GAC filtration on bacterial regrowth and nitrification in a simulated water main. J Appl Microbiol Symp Suppl 85:178–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. van der Hoek JP, Hofman JAMH, Graveland A (1999) The use of biological activated carbon filtration for the removal of natural organic matter and organic micropollutants from water. Water Sci Technol 40:257–264CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Velten S, Boller M, Köster O et al (2011) Development of biomass in a drinking water granular active carbon (GAC) filter. Water Res 45:6347–6354CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Vignola M, Werner D, Wade MJ et al (2018) Medium shapes the microbial community of water filters with implications for effluent quality. Water Res 129:499–508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Wang JZ, Summers RS, Miltner RJ (1995) Biofiltration performance: part 1, relationship to biomass. J AWWA 87:55–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wang H, Ho L, Lewis DM et al (2007) Discriminating and assessing adsorption and biodegradation removal mechanisms during granular activated carbon filtration of microcystin toxins. Water Res 41:4262–4270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wang Q, You W, Li X et al (2014) Seasonal changes in the invertebrate community of granular activated carbon filters and control technologies. Water Res 51:216–227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Weber WJ, Pirbazari M, Melson GL (1978) Biological growth on activated carbon: an investigation by scanning electron microscopy. Environ Sci Technol 12:817–819CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Weeks MA, Leadbeater BSC, Callow ME et al (2007) Effects of backwashing on the prosobranch snail Potamopyrgus jenkinsi Smith in granular activated carbon (GAC) adsorbers. Water Res 41:2690–2696CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wigmans T (1989) Industrial aspects of production and use of activated carbons. Carbon 27:13–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wu Y, Zhu G, Lu X (2013) Characteristics of DOM and removal of DBPs precursors across O3-BAC integrated treatment for the micro-polluted raw water of the Huangpu river. Water 5:1472–1486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Wu T, Yuzhu G, Michael F, Brown T (2014) Bacterial community in the biofilm of granular activated carbon (GAC) PreBiofilter in bench-scale pilot plants for surface water pretreatment. World J Microbiol Biotechnol 30:3251–3262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Xing W, Ngo HH, Kim SH et al (2008) Adsorption and bioadsorption of granular activated carbon (GAC) for dissolved organic carbon (DOC) removal in wastewater. Bioresour Technol 99:8674–8678CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Yang BM, Liu JK, Chien CC et al (2011) Variations in AOC and microbial diversity in an advanced water treatment plant. J Hydrol 409:225–235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Yao S, Ni J, Ma T, Li C (2013) Heterotrophic nitrification and aerobic denitrification at low temperature by a newly isolated bacterium, Acinetobacter sp. HA2. Bioresour Technol 139:80–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Yapsakli K, Çeçen F (2010) Effect of type of granular activated carbon on DOC biodegradation in biological activated carbon filters. Process Biochem 45:355–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Yapsakli K, Mertoglu B, Ferhan C (2010) Identification of nitrifiers and nitrification performance in drinking water biological activated carbon (BAC) filtration. Process Biochem 45:1543–1549CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Zhang Z, Wang L, Shao L (2010) Study on relationship between characteristics of DOC and removal performance by BAC filter. In: 4th international conference on bioinformatics and biomedical engineering, pp 1–4Google Scholar
  85. Zhang D, Li W, Zhang S et al (2011) Bacterial Community and Function of Biological Activated Carbon Filter in Drinking Water Treatment. Biomed Env Sci 24:122–131Google Scholar
  86. Zhang D, Li W, Gong H et al (2013) Evaluation of long term stability of seeded bacteria in a bio-enhanced activated carbon filter used for treating drinking water. Int Biodeterior Biodegr 85:701–708CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Islamic Azad University (IAU) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hydraulics and Sanitation Department, São Carlos School of EngineeringUniversity of São PauloSão Carlos, São PauloBrazil

Personalised recommendations