The design of French VFCWs leads to the formation of a sludge layer at the surface of the first filters due to the retention of suspended solids from the percolation of unsettled wastewater. This layer plays a major role in the system but still little is known on its characteristics and evolutions. In this study, suspended solids and sludge deposits sampled from two French VFCW plants were analyzed by different methods in the objective to assess the evolution of particulate organic matter (POM) along the treatment chain and within the sludge layer, and identify relevant analytical indicators of these phenomena. The treatment chain included an aerobic trickling filter followed by FeCl3 injection and two successive stages of filters. Thermal analyses showed that OM contents of suspended solids decreased along the treatment chain. POM in inflow suspended solids was predominantly composed of reactive, biodegradable compounds which were partly hydrolyzed and mineralized notably at the trickling filter stage. 3D fluorescence spectra collected from aqueous POM extracts confirmed the evolution of organic matter from low-molecular reactive compounds to more complex and stable structures such as humic-like substances. FTIR confirmed the mineralization of POM's reactive constituents along the treatment chain by the decrease in the intensities of the characteristics bands of aliphatic compounds or proteins, and its humification in the sludge deposits through the relative increase of the bands at 1634 cm− 1 (vC = O) and 1238 cm− 1 (δC = O and/or δOH). Isotopic ratios δ2H/1H and δ15N/14N were found to be good indicators of POM evolutions. The higher values of δ2H/1H and δ15N/14N ratios measured in sludge deposits as compared to inflow suspended solids were related to POM humification and to microbial processes of POM hydrolysis and mineralization, respectively.
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