Harnessing Photoelectrochemistry for Wastewater Nitrate Treatment Coupled with Resource Recovery



Wastewater is a misplaced resource well suited to recover nutrients, value-added chemicals, energy, and clean water. A photoelectrochemical device is proposed to transform wastewater nitrates to ammonia and nitrous oxide, coupled with water oxidation. Numerical models were developed to quantify the dependence of process efficiencies and nitrogen-removal rates on light absorber band gaps, electrocatalytic kinetic parameters, competing oxygen reduction and hydrogen evolution reactions, and the reacting nitrate species concentrations that affect the mass-transfer limited current densities. With a single light-absorber and state-of-the-art catalysts, optimal solar-to-chemical efficiencies of 7% and 10% and nitrogen-removal rates of 260 and 395 gN m-2 day-1 are predicted for nitrate reduction to ammonia and nitrous oxide respectively. The influence of competing reactions on the performance depends on the nitrate concentration and band gap of the light absorber modeled. Oxygen reduction is more dominant than hydrogen evolution to compete with the nitrate reduction reaction, but is mass-transfer limited. Even with kinetic parameters that enhanced the driving forces for the competing reactions, the performance is only minimally affected by these reactions for optimally selected band gaps and nitrate concentrations larger than 100 mM. Theoretically predicted peak nitrogen removal rates and specific energy intensities are competitive with reported estimates for bioelectrochemical and Sharon-Anammox processes for ammonia recovery and nitrogen removal respectively. This result, together with the added benefit of harnessing sunlight to produce value-added products, indicates promise in the photoelectrochemical approach as a tertiary pathway to recover nutrients and energy from wastewater nitrates.

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