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 filtration  systems  for  marine  and  

freshwater  using  sand  and  glass  media  

Dr.Howard  Dryden  

Dated  July  2014  


Media   bed   mechanical   sand   filtration   systems   comprise   gravity   flow,   pressure   and   moving   bed  
continuous  backwash  filtration  systems.    In  all  cases  the  most  common  mechanical  filtration  media  is  
quartz   silica   sand.       The   quality   of   quartz   sand   is   a   variable   depending   upon   the   country   and   the  
location  of  the  deposit.        

There   is   a   requirement   for   a   consistent   quality   of   filter   media   for   all   industries   using   media   bed  
filtration   in   order   to   standardise   and   optimise   the   filtration   process.   This   aspect   becomes   more  
important  for  filters  that  have  a  pressure  gradient  across  the  bed  such  as  horizontal  filters,  or  filters  
that  have  not  been  installed  on  a  perfectly  level  base.  The  performance  of  seven  different  types  of  
filtration   media   were   physically   evaluated   by   IFTS   (1)   one   of   the   leading   independent   accredited  
laboratories  in  Europe  for  the  evaluation  of  products  used  in  the  water  industry.  


Sand  has  been  used  for  over  200  years  in  Europe  as  a  means  of  filtering  Drinking  water.  A  company  
in   Scotland   in   1804   was   the   first   documented   report   of   a   company   using   sand   in   a   slow   bed   sand  
filter   (2).      Slow  bed  sand  filters  typically  operate  at  water  flow  velocity  of  0.1m/hr  and  use  a  coarse  
grade  of  sand  and  gravel.    The  filters  depend  on  maturation  of  the  sand  as  a  biological  filter  before  
they  provide  adequate  mechanical  water  filtration.  


Slow  bed  sand  filters  provide  excellent  water  quality  and  are  still  used  for  the  treatment  of  drinking  
water.   Approximately   20%   of   all   water   supplies   in   the   UK   currently   use   slow   bed   filters,   but   they   are  
being  phased  out  in  favour  of  RGF  (Rapid  Gravity  Filters)  and  pressure  sand  filters  in  order  to  save  
space.     RGF   filters   for   drinking   water   operate   at   water   flow   velocity   of   6m/hr   whereas   pressure  
filters   typically   operate   at   12m/hr.     The   water   flow   velocities   of   RGF   and   pressure   filters   are  
therefore  60  to  120  times  faster  than  slow  bed  filters.    The  higher  water  velocities  change  the  bio-­‐
dynamics  of  the  filtration  process  which  impacts  on  filter  performance  leading  to  bio-­‐instability  and  
transient  wormhole  channelling  of  unfiltered  water  through  the  filter  bed.  

The   performance   of   any   media   bed   will   be   inversely   proportional   to   the   flow   velocity,   which   is   a  
function   of   the   filter   diameter,   its   surface   area   and   bed   depth   (Darcy’s   Law)(3).       The   slower   the   filter  
flow  velocity  the  higher  the  performance,  the  relationship  is  exponential  but  the  coefficient  depends  
on   the   media   characteristics   and   particle   size   used   for   performance   evaluation.     One   of   the   key  
issues  in  the  drinking  water  industry  is  ability  to  remove  a  parasite  called  Cryptosporidium,  which  is  
almost   completely   resistant   to   chlorine   and   only   measures   4   microns   in   size.       If   sand   filters   are  
operated   at   water   flows   in   excess   of   12m/hr   it   becomes   increasingly   difficult   to   ensure   adequate  
water  quality  and  the  removal  of  these  parasites.  

Aquaculture  and  aquarium  systems  tend  to  operate  at  much  higher  water  flow  rates  in  order  to  save  
space   and   reduce   capital   cost.     Given   that   filtration   performance   is   related   to   surface   area,   U.S.  
systems   in   particular   often   use   stacked   horizontal   filters   in   order   to   save   space   and   optimise   surface  
area.      Bed  depth  is  however  reduced  thereby  reducing  the  adsorption  capacity  for  small  particles.  
Also,   differing   pressure   gradient   across   different   areas   of   the   bed   will   reduce   performance   when  
compared  to  vertical  filters  that  have  a  consistent  pressure  gradient  and  a  deep  bed.  

For  marine  hatcheries  filtration  velocity  should  be  the  same  as  drinking  water  systems  at  less  than  
12m/hr.   Ideally   vertical   filters   should   be   used   and   the   design   should   be   in   compliance   to   a   formal  
standard   such   as   the   German   DIN   specification,   which   states   a   1200mm   bed   depth   and   nozzle  
distribution   plate   as   a   basic   requirement.     For   ongrowing   systems   and   aquaria,   filtration   velocities  
may  be  increased  to  20m/hr.  The  systems  will  still  achieve  good  performance  because  the  water  is  
being  recycled.  From  experience  and  observation  filtration  velocities  beyond  30m/hr  give  very  poor  
mechanical  performance.  

Pressure  differential  

During   the   run-­‐phase   large   solids   will   accumulate   on   the   top   of   the   filter   bed   and   small   solids   will  
penetrate   the   bed.     Small   particles   attracted   by   electrical   (Van   der   Waals)   forces   may   become  
trapped  on  the  surface  of  the  media.  Sand  and  most  media  carry  a  negative  charge  or  Zeta  Potential.    
In   water   treatment   phosphate   sequesters   such   as   Lanthanum   chloride,   PAC   (polyaluminium  
chloride)   or   polyelectrolytes   may   be   applied   to   drop   the   zeta   potential,   increase   coagulation   and  
flocculation   as   well   as   increasing   electrical   attraction.   In   aquarium   systems   however   the   use   of  
chemicals  would  not  be  advisable.    Reduction  of  zeta  potential  and  coagulation  can  nevertheless  be  
achieved  by  the  rapid  movement  of  water,  use  a  static  mixers  such  as  a  ZPM  (Zeta  potential  Mixer)  
or  by  slightly  increasing  redox  potential  by  application  of  ozone.  

In  addition  to  mechanical  and  electrical  attraction,  there  will  also  be  some  degree  of  molecular  sieve  
filtration.   This   will   be   the   case   with   activated   carbon,   and   to   a   lesser   extent   with   new   sand.     The  
ability  of  sand  to  adsorb  is  a  function  of  the  silicon  to  aluminium  ratio  and  how  the  molecules  are  
configured.     An   example   of   natural   ion   exchange   molecular   sieve   sand   is   the   zeolitic   sand  
clinoptilolite  (4)(5).      

Zeolites  are  used  in  aquaculture  and  aquaria  systems  as  a  mechanical  filtration  media  and  also  as  an  
ion  exchange  mineral  for  the  selective  removal  of  ammonium  from  freshwater.  Zeolites  cannot  be  
used  for  this  application  in  marine  systems  because  the  competing  cations  will  prevent  ion  exchange  
of   ammonium.     In   freshwater   systems   zeolites   provide   a   good   substrate   for   the   growth   of  
autotrophic  nitrifying  bacteria,  a  characteristic  that  is  likely  due  to  the  adsorption  of  ammonium  into  
the  mineral  and  its  availability  to  be  metabolised  by  autotrophic  species  such  as  Nitrosomonas  spp.      

Biofouling  and  worm-­‐hole  channelling  

The  performance  of  any  mechanical  filtration  media  depends  upon  the  passage  of  water  through  the  
filter  bed  and  the  ability  to  remove  the  collected  solids  during  the  back-­‐wash  phase.    

Clinoptilolite   initially   provides   very   good   filtration   for   aquaculture,   but   the   media   rapidly   biofouls,  
especially   at   high   water   temperatures   (above   20oC)   in   nutrient   rich   water.       In   closed   system   eel  
Anguilla   anguilla   cultivation   at   28oC   the   clinoptilolite   filter   bed   blocked   within   2   hours   when  
operated  at  10m/hr  filtration  velocity   (6).  Blockage  was  due  to  collected  solids  as  well  as  growth  of  
heterotrophic  bacteria  on  the  filter  media.  The  rapid  growth  rate  of  bacteria  and  the  production  of  
bacterial  alginate  exopolysaccharides  cause  coagulation  of  the  filter  bed   (6)  which  leads  to  transient  
wormhole   channelling.     The   alginates   are   actually   advantageous   in   slow   bed   filters   (7)   and   can  
improve   filtration   performance,   in   rapid   gravity   and   pressure   sand   filters   the   alginates   lead   to  
blockage   and   bio-­‐instability   of   sand   beds.   Back-­‐washing   will   not   remove   biofilm   or   prevent  
biofouling,   indeed   continuously   fluidised   sand   beds   make   excellent   biofilters   for   bacterial  
nitrification  (8).    

Back-­‐washing,  what  goes  into  a  filter  must  come  back-­‐out  

Proper   back-­‐washing   is   very   important.   Under   DIN   standards   the   bed   should   be   fluidised   and  
expanded   by   20%   bed   for   a   period   of   5   minutes   duration.   The   velocity   of   the   water   required   to  
achieve   bed   expansion   is   a   function   of   the   bulk   bed   density   of   the   media,   particle   size,   shape   as   well  
as  the  temperature  and  density  of  the  water.  Sand  with  a  PSD  (particle  size  distribution)  between  0.5  
and   1.0mm   requires   a   flow   velocity   the   region   of   55m/hr   at   28oC   for   freshwater.     For   a   marine  
system  due  to  the  higher  density  of  water  at  35ppt,  the  back-­‐wash  flow  velocity  may  be  reduced  to  

Back-­‐washing  is  critical,  any  solids  or  organic  matter  remaining  in  the  filter  bed  after  a  back-­‐wash  will  
simply  act  as  a  food  source  for  the  growth  of  more  bacteria  and  exopolysaccharides.    However  we  
know  that  even  sand  beds  fluidised  100%  of  the  time  make  very  good  biofilters  (8),  so  back-­‐washing  
of  sand  is  never  100%  effective.    Organic  matter  and  particles  will  become  embedded  in  the  alginate  
and  will  remain   after  a  back-­‐wash  and  will  continue  to  feed  heterotrophic  bacteria.    Gradually  the  
filter  biofilm  will  mineralise  with  calcium  and  phosphate  to  form  calcites  or  struvite  with  magnesium,  
ammonium   and   phosphate.     The   biofilm   becomes   more   stable,   alginate   production   increases   and  
filtration  performance  gradually  decreases  until  a  point  when  a  media  change  is  required.  

Glass  media  and  sand  

Glass  is  an  aluminosilcate  manufactured  from  silica  sand  or  from  the  re-­‐melt  of  glass  bottles.    It  has  a  
similar   chemical   composition   to   sand,   but   may   contain   metal   oxides   such   aluminium,   or   ferric   to  
make  amber  glass  or  manganese  and  chromium  for  green  glass.    

Glass   as   a   filter   media   was   used   in   1984   by   Dr   Howard   Dryden   as   an   alternative   to   the   zeolite  
clinoptilolite  as  a  means  of  filtering  water  in  a  RAS  (Recirculating  Aquaculture  System)  for  eels  and  
Atlantic  salmon.  The  glass  was  initially  used  as  a   feedstock  for  the  manufacture  of  synthetic  zeolites.  
The  glass  was  subsequently  used  as  a  substrate  and  the  surface  of  the  glass  was  change  by  a  solgel  
process  to  give  it  a  hydrophilic  high  surface  area  to  avoid  biofouling  while  still  acting  as  a  molecular  
sieve  similar  to  clinoptilolite  for  the  adsorption  of  organics.  
The   manufacture   of   filter   media   provides   an   opportunity   to   make   a   filter   media   with   a   specific  
tailored   performance.     The   performance   can   then   be   quantified   and   compared   against   other   filter  
media.    Such  an  investigation  has  never  been  conducted  for  sand.  Given  that  sand  is  used  to  treat  
more  than  99%  of  our  drinking  water  supply,  it  is  rather  surprising  that  there  has  been  no  detailed  
comparison  of  sand  media  performance  from  different  deposits  or  different  countries.    

IFTS.   The   Institut   de   la   Filtration   et   des   Techniques   Séparatives   is   recognised   as   being   the   leading  
institute  in  Europe  for  the  testing  of  water  filter  technology.  As  part  of  the  development  of  a  new  
International   ISO   14034   standard   for   ETV   (Environmental   Technology   Verification)   of   product  
performance   in   the   water   industry,   glass   media   from   different   manufactures   in   Europe   were  
evaluated  by  IFTS(1).  

The  three  basic  tests  conducted  include;  

1. Run  phase  efficiency  

2. Injected  mass  test  
3. Back-­‐wash  performance    

Run  Phase  particle  size  removal  

Seven   different   types   of   glass   media   and   one   sand   media   were   tested.     The   sand   was   from   the  
Leighton   Buzzard   deposit   in   England.     The   silica   sand   was   recognised   by   IFTS   to   be   one   of   the   best   in  
Europe.     The   glass   media   was   provided   by   different   manufacturers   of   glass   granules   and   glass   beads  
in  Europe.    

1. AFM,  activated  filter  media,  Scotland,  grade  1  and  0  

2. Sand,  Leighton  Buzzard,  England  
3. Garofiltre  filter  media,  France  
4. Astral  filter  media,  Spain  
5. Bioma,  filter  media,  Spain  
6. EGFM  filter  media,  England  
7. Vitrosphere  filter  media,  Germany  

The  run  phase  performance  test  involved  the  injection  of  particles  of  a  known  particle  size  directly  
into  the  water  under  controlled  conditions.    Particle  size  analysers  were  fitted  to  the  test  rig  in  order  
to   check   the   concentrations   and   confirm   the   performance.   Two   grades   of   AFM   were   tested,   grade   0  
is  fine  grade  media  with  a  psd  from  0,25  to  0.50.  Grade  1  AFM  is  typical  of  most  filter  grade  media  
with  a  psd  of  0.4  to  1.0.  The  psd  of  all  the  media  tested  approximated  to  a  standard  16  x  30  mesh  
ParFcle  size  removal  preformance  
Percentage  removal  performance  

afm  grade  0  
afm  grade  1  
30.0   Bioma  
20.0   EGFM  
10.0   Vitrosphere  
1   3   4   5   10   15   20   25   30   35   40  
Size  of  parFcles  in  Microns  

The  test  was  performed  in  a  150mm  diameter  column  with  a  900mm  bed  depth  at  a  flow  velocity  of  
20m/hr  and  temperature  23  deg  C.    At  5  micron  particle  size,  AFM  grade  1  was  removing  >97%  of  all  
particles  and  sand,  72%.  Vitrosphere  filter  media  is  manufactured  from  glass  spheres  which  showed  
zero  particle  removal  at  5  microns.  

Run  phase  Injected  mass  test  

The   injected   mass   test   was   run   at   the   same   time   as  the   particle   size   removal   test.   The   differential  
pressure   across   the   filter   bed   was   monitored.     The   data   should   be   viewed   in   conjunction   with   the  
particle   size   removal   performance.   For   example,   Vitrosphere   did   not   show   any   increase   in  
differential  pressure  against  injected  mass,  this  was  because  the  solids  were  simply  passing  through  
the  filer  bed.  

The  sand  produced  a  smooth  curve  and  predictable  performance,  AFM  tracked  the  sand  curve  but  at  
a   slightly   higher   starting   differential   pressure.     Astral   and   EGFM   both   exhibited   slippage   or   discharge  
of  solids  back  into  the  water,  but  in  the  case  of  EGFM  this  was  above  a  differential  of  0.7  bar.  

Filter  beds  will  remove  particles  from  the  water.  Under  ideal  conditions,  as  solids  collect  in  the  bed  
the  differential  pressure  will  increase  and  the  bed  will  block.  An  undesirable  feature  would  be  for  the  
bed  to  discharge  collected  solids  back  into  the  water  such  as  in  the  case  of  the  Astral  filter  media.  

Sand   and   glass   media   will   mechanically   remove   large   particles   from   the   water,   in   addition   small  
particles  that  could  pass  through  the  filter  are  adsorbed  by  electrostatic  attraction.    There  will  be  a  
finite  capacity  for  adsorption,  and  when  this  capacity  is  reached  the  filter  media  may  discharge  the  
solids  back  into  the  water.    The  capacity  of  a  filter  bed  to  hold  onto  solids  is  a  function  of  the  filter  
media,   water   flow   rates   and   differential   pressure.     It   is   therefore   desirable   to   operate   filters   at   as  
slow  a  velocity  as  possible  and  not  to  exceed  a  differential  pressure  of  0.5  bar.  

It  should  be  noted  that  the  tests  were  conducted  with  new  sand  and  new  glass  filter  media.  Sand  will  
become   a   biofilter   and   both   mechanical   filtration  performance   as   well   as   electrostatic   attraction   will  
decline  as  the  biofilm  develops.    Non-­‐activated  glass  media  will  also  be  subjected  to  biofouling  and  
will  deteriorate  albeit  at  a  slower  rate  than  sand.    

AFM  was  the  only  activated  filter  media  tested.  Sand  and  crushed  glass  typically  has  a  surface  area  
of  3000m2/tonne  with  a  PSD  of  0.5  to  1.0mm.  AFM  as  measured  by  nitrogen  gas  adsorption  has  a  
surface   area   close   to   1,000,000m2   per   metric   tonne.     The   surface   area   is   300   times   greater   than  
untreated   glass.     The   higher   surface   area   determines   the   ability   of   AFM   to   remove   small   particles  
and  its  ability  to  hold  on  to  the  particles  during  the  run  phase.  

Back-­‐wash,  what  goes  in  must  come  out  

A  mass  balance  was  conducted  on  the  data,  it  is  very  important  to  achieve  as  close  as  possible  to  a  
100%   back-­‐wash   efficiency.         Solids   and   organic   matter   remaining   in   the  filter   after   a   back-­‐wash   will  
act  a  food  source  for  the  growth  of  bacteria  and  production  of  alginates  leading  the  bed  coagulation  
and  channelling  of  unfiltered  water  through  the  bed.  

Sand   and   AFM   demonstrated   close   to   100%   back-­‐wash   efficiency   and   almost   identical   back-­‐wash  
profile  curves.    All  of  the  non-­‐activated  glass  filter  media  showed  a  reduced  back-­‐wash  performance  
Implications  of  filter  media  and  filter  design  in  Aquarium  LSS  

The   performance   of   a   mechanical   filtration   system   will   depend   on   the   quality   of   the   filter   media,  
design   of   the   filter   and  on   operating   criteria.     For   best   performance   and   water   clarity,   vertical   media  
bed   filters   should   be   used,   the   run   phase   should   be   less   than   20m/hr   and   differential   pressure  
should  never  exceed  0.4  bar.    It  is  also  best  to  back-­‐wash  the  filters  at  least  once  a  week  at  a  water  
flow  that  fluidises  the  bed  by  more  than  20%  for  a  period  of  5  minutes,  or  until  the  back-­‐wash  water  
runs  clear.  

There   is   a   wide   choice   of   filter   media   available;   the   sand   tested   was   the   best   sand   available   for  
pressure  or  gravity  flow  filters  and  the  best  performing  filter  media  as  shown  by  IFTS  data   was  AFM  
activated   filter   media.     The   sand   was   new   sand,   the   media   will   gradually   become   a   biofiler   and  
mechanical  filtration  performance  will  decline.  

The  clarity  of  the  aquarium  water  is  a  function  of  the  Zeta  potential  of  all  particles  in  suspension.    As  
redox  potential  increases,  zeta  potential  decreases,  when  zeta  potential  is  zero  you  have  the  lowest  
turbidity.     Ozonation   systems   are   therefore   useful   to   achieve   good   water   clarity   and   low   turbidity  
however  it  is  also  very  easy  to  use  too  much,  the  negative  zeta  potential  will  drop  to  zero  and  then  
start  to  increase  again  as  more  ozone  is  applied,  this  will  simply  create  a  colloidal  suspension.      

Ozone  is  a  very  useful  treatment  in  aquarium  LSS  systems  but  it  needs  to  be  balanced  in  combination  
with  the  mechanical  filtration  and  biological  filtration  systems  for  the  best  results.  


AFM   will   provide   close   to   100%   filtration   at   5   microns,   and   when   used   in   combination   with   zeta  
potential   reduction   using   ZPM   static   mixers   with   ozone,   it   is   possible   to   achieve   micron   and   sub-­‐
micron   filtration.     Water   clarity   is   very   important   for   most   applications;   it   is   a   primary   parameter   for  
drinking   water,   it   is   regulated   in   the   pool   industry   in   Germany   where   is   should   be   under   0.1NTU.      
For   Aquarium   systems   it   is   also   important   to   have   the   best   possible   water   clarity   so   this   means  
turbidity   values   under   0.1ntu,   or   approaching   zero   turbidity   with   more   than   25m   of   good   visibility  
that   can   only   be   achieved   by   operating   a   balanced   system.  In   this   context   it   is   important   to   have   pH  
and   redox   redox   stability,   the   correct   divalent   cation   and   anion   concentration   and   a   low  
concentration   of   surfactants   (bio-­‐surfactants).   Dissolved   organics   and   small   particles   will   all   increase  
the   zeta   potential   and   make   it   difficult   to   achieve   clear   water.   Biofiltration   and   ozone   will   reduce  
their  concentration,  but  biofiltration  cannot  deal  with  all  organics  and  the  amount  of  ozone  required  
to  deal  with  remainder  shifts  the  zeta  potential  to  the  negative  side  and  can  increase  turbidity.  

The   key   is   to   have   a   dynamically   balanced   integrated   system,   mechanical   filtration   is   an   essential  
component  used  in  conjunction  with  biofiltration,  ozonation  and  control  of  water  chemistry.  


1.  IFTS  (2014) Institut  de  la  Filtration  et  des  Techniques  Séparatives,  Sièges  Social,  Adresse  de  
livraison  ,  Rue  Marcel  Pagnol  47510  FOULAYRONNES,  France
2.  WHO.  http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/ssf2.pdf    World  Health  

3.  H.  Darcy  (1856),  Les  Fontaines  Publiques  de  la  Ville  de  Dijon,  Dalmont,  Paris.  

4.  Dryden,  H.  T.  and  L.  R.  Weatherley  (1987).  "Aquaculture  treatment  by  ion-­‐exchange:  II.  Selectivity  
studies  with  clinoptilolite  at  0.01N."  Agricultural  Engineering  6:  51-­‐68.  

5.  Dryden,  H.  T.  and  L.  R.  Weatherley  (1987).  "Aquaculture  water  treatment  by  ion-­‐exchange:  I.  
Capacity  of  Hector  clinoptilolite  at  0.01-­‐0.05N."  Agricultural  Engineering  6:  39-­‐50.  

6.  Dryden  H.T.  (1984).  The  removal  of  ammonium  by  selective  ion  exchange  filtration  using  the  
natural  zeolite  Clinoptilote.  PhD  1984  Heriot  Watt  University.    Dept  of  Chemical  Engineering  

7. Visualisation of the establishment of a heterotrophic biofilm within the schmutzdecke of a slow

sand filter using scanning electron microscopy. Biofilm, Volume 6, Paper 1 (BF01001) 2001

8. Thomas M. Losordo1 (April 1999), Michael P. Masser2 and James E. Rakocy. Recirculating
Aquaculture Tank Production Systems A Review of Component Options. SRAC Publication No. 453
Southern Region Aquaculture Centre.