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2020 Excellence in Environmental Engineering and Science™ Awards Competition Winner

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Grand Prize - University Research

Hybrid Adsorption Biological Treatment System (HABiTS) for Nitrogen Removal in Onsite Wastewater Treatment

Entrant: University of South Florida
Engineer in Charge: Sarina J. Ergas, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE
Location: Tampa, Florida
Media Contact: Sarina J. Ergas

Entrant Profile

Role in Project
Sarina Ergas Professor, CEE, USF PI responsible for overall management, advising students, data quality, and publications. Major professor for L. Rodriguz-Gonzalez, J. Stocks, M. Rice, D. Delgado, M. Henderson.
Kebreab Ghebremichael Instructor, Global Sustainability, USF Met weekly with the project team; co-advised M. Henderson; assisted with research publication.s
James R. Mihelcic Professor, CEE, USF PI of the USEPA Nutrient Center (RAINmagmt) through which project was funded; met weekly with project team; major professor to Amulya Miriyala.
Damann Anderson Consultant, Hazen & Sawyer Project technical advisor; assisted with design of pilot HABiTS.
Luke Mulford University Liaison, Hillsborough County Public Utilities Dept Technical advisor; liaison between Hillsborough PUD and USF
Laura Rodriguez-Gonzalez PhD student/Postdoc, USF (currently Carollo Engineering) Derived her dissertation from this project; led the bench-scale testing and publication.
Amulya Miriyala MS student (currently Indian Fellows Social Leadership Prog.) Derived her MS thesis from this project; led investigations of effect of recirculation on performance.
Madison Rice MS student USF Assisted with research on fecal indicator bacterial removal in HABiTS.
Daniel Delgado MS/PhD student USF Assisted with research on nitrogen removal in HABiTS.
Justine Marshall MS student USF (currently Arcadis) Derived her MS thesis from this project; led design, construction and startup of the pilot.
Michelle Henderson MS/PhD student USF Derived her MS thesis from this project; led investigations of fecal indicator bacteria removal in HABiTS.

Project Description


Onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS; aka septic systems) treat approximately 25% of US domestic wastewater and are significant sources of nutrient and fecal indicator bacteria contamination of surface and groundwater. Advanced onsite treatment technologies have been developed; however, these systems often fail because they are difficult for homeowners to operate and maintain. "Passive" biofilters have been developed that are similar in operations and maintenance (O&M) to septic systems and can be retrofitted into septic system infrastructure (Figure 1). Passively aerated nitrifying biofilters are followed by submerged denitrifying biofilters with wood chip media, which slowly releases organic carbon for denitrification. This avoids the need for forced aeration and complex chemical feed systems (e.g., for methanol).

However, OWTS are challenged by diurnal loading rates and long idle periods (e.g., during vacations). This results in overloaded microbial processes during high loading rate periods and die-off of beneficial microbes during idle periods.


This project developed Hybrid Adsorption Biological Treatment Systems (HABiTS) for OWTS. A conceptual model of HABiTS is shown in Figure 2. Low cost ion exchange (IX) materials, clinoptilolite and tire chips (Figure 3), are included as biofilm carriers. When loading rates are high, excess nutrients partition to the IX media. When loading rates are low, nutrients desorb from the IX and are degraded by the biofilm. This results in a steady source of substrate to the microbial population. No fresh IX material is added and no brine waste is produced since the IX medium is "bioregenerated" by the microbes. Innovative aspects of the project include:


Proof-of-concept studies tested a tire-sulfur heterotrophic-autotrophic denitrification (T-SHAD) biofilters with scrap tire, S0 and oyster shell media. Adsorption isotherms showed that scrap tire chips have an adsorption capacity of 0.66 mg NO3--N g-1. Microcosm experiments showed that scrap tires leach bioavailable organic carbon that supports mixotrophic metabolism, resulting in lower effluent SO42- concentrations than SOD. T-SHAD columns had low effluent NO3- concentrations even under highly variable NO3- loads (Figure 4).

In a follow up study, transient loads of domestic wastewater were applied to bench-scale nitrification-denitrification biofilters with and without IX media. Incorporation of clinoptilolite resulted in steady low NH4+ concentrations compared to the conventional column, even during the start-up period when microbial biofilms were being established (Figure 5). Over a 15 month study, total nitrogen (TN) removal in HABiTS was significantly enhanced compared with the conventional process, particularly under high NH4+ loads.

Funding from a USEPA Nutrient Center grant allowed us to carry out pilot-scale HABiTS studies at Hillsborough County's Northwest Regional Water Reclamation Facility in Tampa Florida (Figures 6). Two pilot HABiTS, with and without recirculation (Figure 7), were tested over 1.5 years. Recirculation significantly improved NH4+ removal (~85%) compared with HABiTS without recirculation (~50%; Figure 8) by reducing the organic load to the nitrifying biofilter, reduced clogging and enhanced fecal indicator bacteria removal. Consistently low effluent NO3- and NO2- concentrations were observed throughout the study. The results show that HABiTS is a low-cost, low-energy and robust process that can consistently achieve advanced secondary standards under transient loading conditions. Our team is currently carrying out economic and life cycle assessment studies of HABiTS for onsite water reuse.


OWTS provide sanitation in economically challenged rural and suburban areas and developing countries that lack access to centralized wastewater treatment facilities, financial resources or a skilled workforce. However, they are diffuse pollution sources that contaminate drinking water sources and promote eutrophication, sea grass mortality and harmful algal blooms. Application of HABiTS for OWTS has the following benefits:

The project trained 6 undergraduate and 7 graduate environmental engineering students to develop sustainable OWTS solutions (Figure 9). Three MS theses, two PhD dissertations and three peer-reviewed articles were derived from this research. Students gave presentations at regional, national and international meetings of WEF, IWA, AIChE, NEHA and SSSA. The pilot-plant served as a demonstration site, which hosted researchers, regulatory and utility staff and consulting engineers. Our team also organized a successful workshop on OWTS at the WEF Nutrient Symposium in Ft. Lauderdale Florida in 2017. Dr. Ergas guest edited a special collection of the ASCE Journal of Sustainable Water in the Built Environment on Onsite and Decentralized Wastewater Management.

Figure References

  1. Aponte-Morales, V.E., Payne, K.A., Cunningham, J.A, Ergas, S.J. (2018) Bioregeneration of Chabazite During Nitrification of Centrate from Anaerobically Digested Livestock Waste: Experimental and Modeling Studies, ES&T, 52(7): 4090-4098.
  2. Krayzelova, L., Lynn, T.J., Banihani, Q., Bartacek, J., Jenicek, P., Ergas, S.J. (2014) A Tire- Sulfur Hybrid Adsorption Denitrification (T-SHAD) Process for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment, Water Research, 61:191-199.
  3. Rodriguez-Gonzalez, L., Miriyala, A., Rice, M., Delgado, D., Marshall, J., Henderson, M., Ghebremichael, K., Mihelcic, J.R., Ergas, SJ. (2020) A Pilot-Scale Hybrid Adsorption Biological Treatment System (HABiTS) for Nitrogen Removal in Onsite Wastewater Treatment, ASCE-J. Sustainable Water in the Built Environment, 6(1): 04019014.

Click images to enlarge in separate window.

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Figure 1: Incorporation of HABiTS into onsite wastewater treatment infrastructure.

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Figure 2: Conceptual model of the HABiTS process (from Aponte-Morales et al., 2018).

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Figure 3: Low cost natural materials used in HABiTS.

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Figure 4: Influent NO3- loading (---) and effluent NO3--N () concentrations from T-SHAD columns under variable loading rates (from Krayzelova et al., 2014).

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Figure 5: Influent and effluent NH4+ -N concentrations during start-up of HABiTS and conventional 2-stage biofilters treating domestic wastewater under variable loads.

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Figure 6: Pilot HABiTS with and without recirculation set up at Hillsborough County's Northwest Regional Water Reclamation Facility in Tampa Florida.

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Figure 7: Pilot HABiTS schematic. Items shown in grey or with dashed lines were in the system with recirculation only.

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Figure 8: Daily NH4+-N concentrations for the Influent (•) and effluent of R-HABiTS 1 (with recirculation ▴) and F-HABiTS 1 (without recirculation ■) for all experimental phases.

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Figure 9: Foreground Justine Marshall (MS). Left to right: Dr. Sarina Ergas (PI), Michelle Henderson (MS), Zachary Carroll (BS), Amulya Miriyala (MS), Karl Payne (PhD), Laura Rodriguez-Gonzalez (PhD).

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Figure 10: Bench scale reactor set up with and without adsorptive media.

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Figure 11: Batch adsorption isotherm studies showing NO3- removal by scrap tire chips.

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