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Improve Clarifier and Thickener Design

and Operation
Using the batch flux curve method aids in optimal design
and operation.
July 1994 pp. 50-56

Reprinted with permission of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers

Copyright 1994 AIChE. All Rights Reserved

Joel B. Christian,

A design method for thickeners and clarifiers known as the batch flux curve
technique was developed over 20 years ago, but still is not well-known in design
and operating circles. An informal survey of major clarifier and thickener
manufacturers found that none of the firms surveyed use this method for sizing and
maximizing operating conditions. Here, we will show the benefits of using this
technique, while illustrating it with an example from an actual plant design. The
theory and applications will also be covered.

Clarifiers vs. thickeners

Clarifiers and thickeners are separation devices. They are common in waste
treatment operations as well as in other chemical operations. These devices
separate two phases by differences in their density. Clarifiers and thickeners are
essentially ide ntical units; a clarifier produces clean water, while a thickener
concentrates a solids slurry as the desired product.
In this discussion, thickener will be used to describe both units. Also, a gravity
separation of solids from water is assumed to take place. The most common unit is
a circular thickener.

The mass (Eq. 1) and material balances (Eq. 2) that form the foundation for the
technique (see Figure 1) are:
Qf xf =


Qe (1)

Qu xU

Qe xe (2)

Under normal conditions, no solids are desired in the effluent:

xe = 0


Figure 1. Flow scheme for clarifiers and thickeners

The feed flowrate (Qf) and concentration (xf) are normally design parameters. This
leaves the designer or operator to determine the underflow pumping rate (Q u)
(sometimes called blowdown) required to achieve a desired underflow effluent
concentration (xu) . Since the underflow is normally pumped, this variable can be
controlled during operation. Also, the pump must be sized to adequately handle the
largest expected loadings.

Figure 2. Settling regimes depend upon closeness of particles to each other

Types of settling
Four regimes of settling are recognized (see Figure 2):
Discrete settling occurs when particles are independent of each other, with no
interparticle forces. Examples of this regime are removing sand and sub stones
from water. In this regime a force balance using Stokes' law is appropriate.
In flocculent settling the particles begin to influence each other, occasionally
sticking together to form flocs. Design in the flocculent regime may use quiescent
settling tests, or batch-flux design to improve the slurry product.
In hindered settling, particles are so close they have a major effect on each other.
This is the regime in which batch-flux analysis applies.
The compression regime is not well studied, and since it normally operates only at
the very bottom cone of the thickener, it goes beyond conventional design

Theory of batch flux

The development of the technique began with Kynch, who modeled the settling of
particles in water. This was followed by work of Yoshioka and Dick, and Ewing,
which formed the current technique. Since the surface area of the settling unit is
the main variable, the mass flow through the system is considered a flux, mass per
unit area per time. This allows system properties to be described in a general way
for any size unit.
In summary, the technique looks at steady-state conditions as solids move
downward in a thickener at a single flux rate. The settling rate is a function of the
feed solids concentration. This settling flux is combined with the flux caused by
Qu< drawing product off the bottom, and balanced with the water rising out of the
thickener. If the flux in (xf Qf/A) exceeds the flux out (xu Qu /A), solids will be
carried out in the effluent.
In the batch flux method, a graphical technique represents the settling flux and the
underflow flux as functions of solids concentration. The settling properties are
plotted as a curve.
The applied flux and underflow pumping rate are presented as an operating line.
The applied flux is the y-intercept of the operating line, and the pumping rate is the
slope of the operating line. Determining the settling properties is more involved,

and we will detail the experimental method and calculations required for
generating the curve and applying it.

Diameter and depth

In settling, cross-sectional surface area is the key parameter. The depth of the tank
is not a factor. The depths used in practice are typically 2.5 to 5 m (8 to 15 ft),
which allow for inlet and outlet turbulence, and solids storage in the bottom of the
unit. This dependence on area holds for discrete settling when Stokes' law applies,
as well as for hindered settling, when the batch flux analysis applies.

Design objective
The typical design procedure will be shown using data from a large industrial
wastewater treatment facility, involving acid and base neutralization and heavy
metals removal.
The objective is to determine the area of a thickener, the optimum underflow
pumping rate, and the corresponding underflow concentration. The following data
were taken: Qf = 177,600 kg/h; xf = 5 kg/m3; and [density], p f =1,000 kg/m3.


A = horizontal surface area, m2

G = solids flux, kg/m2/h
Q = flow rate, kg/hr [note]
r = radius, m
V = unhindered settling velocity, m/h
x = concentration, kg/m3


e = effluent
f = feed
i = test number (1 - n)
u = underflow

Greek letter

p = density, kg/m3

[note] mass and volume flows are used interchangably in this paper, you must use the slurry density
to assure dimensional consistency.

Determining the batch flux curve

Calculation of the curve requires several settling tests of thickener feed at various
concentrations. The goal is to measure the unhindered settling velocity at several
concentrations. Each test (i) produces a settling velocity (V i) and a solids
concentration (xi).
One large sample can be diluted or concentrated to make several samples of
different concentrations. In diluting, use the supernatant as a dilutant rather than
adding water. This keeps the solution chemistry consistent.

Figure 3. Determining data requires only a simple setup.

The test apparatus is simply a graduated cylinder or long glass tube, and a
stopwatch. A wire stirrer operating at one rpm is required for slow settling
materials such as bioprocess solutions to minimize wall effects (see Figure 3).
Condition the sample with flocculant, if required, at the recommended dosage rate.
Mix the solution thoroughly, and then begin timing. The solid-solution interface is
measured and recorded over time. Figure 4 shows the settling curve obtained for on
e solids concentration. In testing, read the interface position on the mL graduations

of the graduated cylinder. Then measure the graduations and convert the mL
readings to length.
Test #

tss (kg/mm )

v (m/hr)
























































Table 1

Actual Settling Data

Figure 4. Settling curve yields unhindered settling velocity

The straight line shows the estimate of the unhindered settling velocity. This can be
calculated from the x and y intercepts:
(0.35 m/19 min) (60 min/1 h)
= 1.1 m/h


Each solution is also analyzed for solids concentration. Normally total suspended
solids (TSS) is used, but other measures, such as volatile suspended solids (VSS)
for bioprocess work can be used. Table I shows the results for 21 different tests.
Often the velocity and concentration can be fit to a straight line on semilog
coordinates (see Figure 5). The transformed data are represented by:

Figure 5. Semi-log plot of data produces a straight line.

log V = m x + b (5a)
or solved for V:
V = 10(m

x + b)


where m and b are the slope and intercept of the linearized data, respectively. In
this case the values were estimated to be m = -0.0142 and b 0.370.
Use the fitted data for (xi, Vi,) to calculate the settling flux curve:
Flux = Gi = Xi Vi


Illustrating at xi = 20 kg/m3:
V20 = 10 ((-O.0142)(20)
= 1.26 m/h

+ 0.37)


G20 = (20 kg/m3)(1.26 m/h)

= 25.2 kg/m2/h


Calculate Gi for xi from 0 to 300 kg/m3 in intervals of 10, then graph as shown in
Figure 6. In this example, estimates were calculated for experimental points
outside the experimental range. The feed rate solids flux shown is calculated in the
next step.

Figure 6. Batch flux curve extrapolated to 300 kg/m^3

Design Procedure
The thickener area is also required for this calculation. Guess the thickener area for
the first iteration. Several iterations of area may be required to achieve a practical
thickener size and pumping rate. For a circular thickener with a 15.24 m (50 f t)
A= Pi r2 = 182.4 m2 (7)

The applied solids feed rate can now be calculated as a flux - see Eqs. 8a and 8b.
Applied flux = Gf = (xf Qf) / A (8a)


Applications to thickener design

Once the settling flux curve is drawn, the optimum operating point can be
determined. To calculate the removal rate, construct an operating line from the feed
point, tangent to the settling curve, and crossing the x axis. The x-intercept is the
maxim um underflow solids concentration possible, as shown in Figure 7.
The condition described by this operating line is referred to as a critically loaded
thickener. At steady-state the unit will provide optimum performance under these
The maximum thickened concentration in this example is 232 kg/m 3. This is very
concentrated for waste treatment applications. Typical thickened concentrations of
biological treatment sludges are 5-15 kg/m3.
To find the corresponding pumping rate, solve Eqs. 2 and 3 for Q u. Since xe = 0,
then -see Eqs 9a and 9b.
Qu = (Xf Qf) / Xu (9a)


Since these numbers are reasonable, an about 15 m (50 ft) diameter unit would
work well. If the numbers were not reasonable, a new operating line could be
drawn by inspection, and the area (A) and underflow (or withdrawal) rate (Q u)
could b e determined for those conditions.
Qu is the steady-state sludge withdrawal rate. Keep in mind that the maximum flow
requirement may be several times that depending on design, operation, and control

scheme. A typical installation pumps the solids out once an hour using a ti med

Thickener in operation
The theory says to expect four concentrations in the unit at steady-state' as
illustrated in Figure 8:
0 kg/m3 TSS (at the top);
5 kg/m3 TSS (the "thin blanket");
193 kg/m3 TSS (the "thick blanket"); and
232 kg/m3 TSS in the exit stream.
The layers of solids will move vertically to absorb variations in incoming flow and
underflow pumping. Once the batch flux curve is constructed it can be applied in a
variety of ways.

Figure 7. Batch flux curve shows critically loaded unit.

Applications to clarifier design

In practice, clarifier sizing is often based on a handbook value for a particular type
of waste. Now, we shall compare a handbook value to the batch flux curve
technique. These values are often reported as a rise rate. For this application 33-41
m 3/day/m2 (800-1,000 gal/day/ft2) is considered typical; the range for typical
overflow rates is 16-73 (400-1,800) in the same units (1). The overflow rate in the
previous batch flux curve illustration is:
Rise rate = wastewater flow rate/clarifier area = 23.4 m 3/day/m2 (570 gal/day/ft2).
Batch flux sizing of the clarifier has placed the size in the conservative end of the
published design range.

Besides providing the security of smooth operation from an effluent standpoint,

using the batch flux technique to size clarifiers also ensures control of the
underflow. The achievable underflow concentration is easily calculated. For
chemical process es, the batch flux technique can be applied to new systems that
lack published guidelines. The size calculated can be compared to published
clarifier ranges to check for reasonableness.

Figure 8. Concentrations in clarifier or thickener.

Applications to thickener operation

The major benefit of the batch flux curve is during operation. The curve plots the
solids loading and expected underflow concentration, and determines the required
pumping rate to achieve the greatest separation from the equipment. The idea is to
ach ieve a critically loaded settling unit. This is done by constructing operating
lines as illustrated in the thickener design example.
Figure 9 and Table 2 illustrate the effects of underloading, critically loading, and
overloading a thickener.
Underloading is the most common condition found in a thickener (see Figure 9). In
this case, the sludge blanket is not allowed to develop, and excess water is pumped
out of the thickener underflow. Figure 9 shows an underflow of only 150 kg/m 3 of
TSS. (This is the same unit as just calculated, but run at a different underflow concentration.)

Using Eq. 9a the current pumping rate would be - see Eq. 10.


In this case, the new operating line would be constructed to determine the optimum
underflow concentration. Use the design procedure to determine the optimum
underflow concentration and calculate the flow required to reach it. Since the new
pumping r ate will be lower, there will be energy savings as well as improved
operation. The product concentration will change from 150 to 232 kg/m 3; and the
pumping rate from 5,920 to 3,830 kg/h, at critically loaded flow.
Overloading causes the operating line to cross the curve at 140 kg/m 3. This is the
exit concentration, xu. Use the slope of the operating line to calculate the underflow
rate: - see Equation I 1.

If operated this way for long, solids will accumulate and rise to the overflow,
contaminating the effluent. Eqs. 2 and 9a can be used to calculate the effluent
concentration (xe). - see Equation 12.

This shows the effect of overloading a thickener by pumping too little underflow.
Other operational problems can occur, such as intermittent overloading and varying
sludge properties. In each case, the batch flux curve is determined for each material
and the operating line is constructed.
Problems can also arise with improper dosing of flocculent. Often, an underdose
can drastically change the settling properties. This points out the importance of
properly conditioning the samples with flocculent before each batch settling test.

Figure 9. Effects of underloading and overloading.

Table 2. Different types of loading for a thickener (inset).

Advanced applications
For biological treatment processes, an important extension of the batch flux curve
is the state point (see Figure 10). Developed by Keinath, et al. (2), the state point
adds operating lines for reactor recycle, allowing the thickener operation to be a
djusted to optimize the entire system. The state point operating line crosses the
batch flux curve operating line at xr, the concentration of cells in the reactor.
This concept is useful in operating many kinds of biological reactors. In Figure 11,
by pumping the clarifier at a lower rate to achieve critically loaded operation, the
cell concentration in the reactor will increase giving better treatment. This co ncept
can be extended to inorganic treatment by substituting the crystal growth equation
for the cell growth equation.
Another use is for thickeners in series, using the recycle from the second stage as
part of the makeup to the first stage (3). Using sequential thickening steps,
deliberate overloading of all but the last step may give distinct advantages.

This concept can be extended to inorganic treatment by

substituting the crystal growth equation for the cell
growth equation.

Figure 10. State point for a biological reactor and clarifier.

Figure 11. Typical bioreactor and clarifier setup.

Using thickeners in series is good for slow settling materials. This setup is thought
to take advantage of the compressive settling regime for consolidation of thickened
solids. A polishing unit provides a clear effluent. This technique allows more
control over the finished product, and allows equipment sizing to be optimized for
the lowest-cost thickened product.
A third important concept is inorganic solids recycle. This technique is useful in
treating heavy metals and other ionic species in solution. By recycling solids and
mixing them with the feed material, greater removal is often achieved (4).
This technique employs several mechanisms, including providing seed crystals,
decreasing precipitate surface tension, raising the ionic activity, providing an ionexchange site, and ultimately decreasing the solubility allowing more ions to be
removed from solution, yielding a cleaner effluent. The batch flux curve and state
point can be used to determine the mass balance in solids recycle system, allowing
steady-state process conditions to be optimized. [CEP]

Literature Cited
1. Corbitt, R.A., Standard Handbook of Environmental Engineering,McGrawHill, New York. p 6.89 (1989).
2. Keinath, T. M., et al., "Activated Sludge -- Unified System Design and
Operation," J. Envir. Eng. Div., Proc. ASCE, 103(EE5) 829-849 (1977).
3. Dick, R.I., "Practical Thickening Theory Applications", Fluid/Particle
Separation Journal, 2 (2), (June 1989).
4. Christian, J.B., U.S. Patent 5,120,447 " Method for Removing Heavy
Metals from Wastewater," (June 9, 1992).

Further Reading
Dick, R.I., "Gravity Thickening of Sewage Sludges," Effluent & Water
Treatment Journal, Nov. 1972, pp. 597-605.
Dick, R.I., in Physicochemical Processes for Water Quality Control, Walter J.
Weber, Jr.,Wiley-Interscience, (1972)
Dick, R.I. and B. B. Ewing, "Evaluation of Activated Sludge Thickening
Theories," J. Sanitary Eng. Div., Proceedings of the ASCE, 93, no. SA-4, (1967).

Huck, P.M., et al., "Optimization of Polymer Flocculation of Heavy Metal

Hydroxides," Journal of Water Pollution Control Federation, 49(12):2411-2418,
Kynch, G.J., "A Theory of Sedimentation", Transactions, Faraday Society,
Vol. 48, pp. 166-176, (1952).
Yoshioka, N., et al., "Continuous Thickening of Homogeneous Flocculated
Slurries," Chemical Engineering, 21, Tokyo, (1957).