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Tracing N2O formation in full-scale wastewater treatment with natural abundance isotopes indicates control by organic substrate and process settings

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Gruber Wenzel, Magyar Paul M., Mitrovic Ivan, Zeyer Kerstin, Vogel Michael, von Känel Luzia, Biolley Lucien, Werner Roland A., Morgenroth Eberhard, Lehmann Moritz F., Braun Daniel, Joss Adriano, Mohn Joachim,
Project Advanced understanding of autotrophic nitrogen removal and associated N2O emissions in mixed nitritation-anammox systems through combined stable ISOtopic and MOLecular constraints (ISOMOL)
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Water Research X
Volume (Issue) 15
Page(s) 100130 - 100130
Title of proceedings Water Research X
DOI 10.1016/j.wroa.2022.100130

Open Access

Type of Open Access Publisher (Gold Open Access)


Nitrous oxide (N2O) dominates greenhouse gas emissions in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Formation of N2O occurs during biological nitrogen removal, involves multiple microbial pathways, and is typically very dynamic. Consequently, N2O mitigation strategies require an improved understanding of nitrogen transformation pathways and their modulating controls. Analyses of the nitrogen (N) and oxygen (O) isotopic composition of N2O and its substrates at natural abundance have been shown to provide valuable information on formation and reduction pathways in laboratory settings, but have rarely been applied to full-scale WWTPs. Here we show that N-species isotope ratio measurements at natural abundance level, combined with long-term N2O monitoring, allow identification of the N2O production pathways in a full-scale plug-flow WWTP (Hofen, Switzerland). Heterotrophic denitrification appears as the main N2O production pathway under all tested process conditions (0–2 mgO2/l, high and low loading conditions), while nitrifier denitrification was less important, and more variable. N2O production by hydroxylamine oxidation was not observed. Fractional N2O elimination by reduction to dinitrogen (N2) during anoxic conditions was clearly indicated by a concomitant increase in site preference, δ18O(N2O) and δ15N(N2O). N2O reduction increased with decreasing availability of dissolved inorganic N and organic substrates, which represents the link between diurnal N2O emission dynamics and organic substrate fluctuations. Consequently, dosing ammonium-rich reject water under low-organic-substrate conditions is unfavorable, as it is very likely to cause high net N2O emissions. Our results demonstrate that monitoring of the N2O isotopic composition holds a high potential to disentangle N2O formation mechanisms in engineered systems, such as full-scale WWTP. Our study serves as a starting point for advanced campaigns in the future combining isotopic technologies in WWTP with complementary approaches, such as mathematical modeling of N2O formation or microbial assays to develop efficient N2O mitigation strategies.