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The Flocculation of E. coli with Polyethyleneimine


Treweek, Gordon Paul (1975) The Flocculation of E. coli with Polyethyleneimine. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Y732-V890.


A comprehensive study was made of the flocculation of dispersed E. coli bacterial cells by the cationic polymer polyethyleneimine (PEI). The three objectives of this study were to determine the primary mechanism involved in the flocculation of a colloid with an oppositely charged polymer, to determine quantitative correlations between four commonly-used measurements of the extent of flocculation, and to record the effect of varying selected system parameters on the degree of flocculation. The quantitative relationships derived for the four measurements of the extent of flocculation should be of direct assistance to the sanitary engineer in evaluating the effectiveness of specific coagulation processes.

A review of prior statistical mechanical treatments of absorbed polymer configuration revealed that at low degrees of surface site coverage, an oppositely- charged polymer molecule is strongly adsorbed to the colloidal surface, with only short loops or end sequences extending into the solution phase. Even for high molecular weight PEI species, these extensions from the surface are theorized to be less than 50 Å in length. Although the radii of gyration of the five PEI species investigated were found to be large enough to form interparticle bridges, the low surface site coverage at optimum flocculation doses indicates that the predominant mechanism of flocculation is adsorption coagulation.

The effectiveness of the high-molecular weight PEI species 1n producing rapid flocculation at small doses is attributed to the formation of a charge mosaic on the oppositely-charged E. coli surfaces. The large adsorbed PEI molecules not only neutralize the surface charge at the adsorption sites, but also cause charge reversal with excess cationic segments. The alignment of these positive surface patches with negative patches on approaching cells results in strong electrostatic attraction in addition to a reduction of the double-layer interaction energies. The comparative ineffectiveness of low-molecular weight PEI species in producing E. coli flocculation is caused by the size of the individual molecules, which is insufficient to both neutralize and reverse the negative E.coli surface charge. Consequently, coagulation produced by low molecular weight species is attributed solely to the reduction of double-layer interaction energies via adsorption.

Electrophoretic mobility experiments supported the above conclusions, since only the high-molecular weight species were able to reverse the mobility of the E. coli cells. In addition, electron microscope examination of the seam of agglutination between E. coli cells flocculation by PEI revealed tightly- bound cells, with intercellular separation distances of less than 100-200 Å in most instances. This intercellular separation is partially due to cell shrinkage in preparation of the electron micrographs.

The extent of flocculation was measured as a function of PEl molecular weight, PEl dose, and the intensity of reactor chamber mixing. Neither the intensity of mixing, within the common treatment practice limits, nor the time of mixing for up to four hours appeared to play any significant role in either the size or number of E.coli aggregates formed. The extent of flocculation was highly molecular weight dependent: the high-molecular-weight PEl species produce the larger aggregates, the greater turbidity reductions, and the higher filtration flow rates. The PEl dose required for optimum flocculation decreased as the species molecular weight increased. At large doses of high-molecular-weight species, redispersion of the macroflocs occurred, caused by excess adsorption of cationic molecules. The excess adsorption reversed the surface charge on the E.coli cells, as recorded by electrophoretic mobility measurements.

Successful quantitative comparisons were made between changes in suspension turbidity with flocculation and corresponding changes in aggregate size distribution. E. coli aggregates were treated as coalesced spheres, with Mie scattering coefficients determined for spheres in the anomalous diffraction regime. Good quantitative comparisons were also found to exist between the reduction in refiltration time and the reduction of the total colloid surface area caused by flocculation. As with turbidity measurements, a coalesced sphere model was used since the equivalent spherical volume is the only information available from the Coulter particle counter. However, the coalesced sphere model was not applicable to electrophoretic mobility measurements. The aggregates produced at each PEl dose moved at approximately the same vlocity, almost independently of particle size.

PEl was found to be an effective flocculant of E. coli cells at weight ratios of 1 mg PEl: 100 mg E. coli. While PEl itself is toxic to E.coli at these levels, similar cationic polymers could be effectively applied to water and wastewater treatment facilities to enhance sedimentation and filtration characteristics.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:flocculation, e.coli, polyethyleneimine
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Environmental Science and Engineering
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Morgan, James J.
Thesis Committee:
  • McKee, Jack E. (chair)
  • Davidson, Norman R.
  • Friedlander, Sheldon K.
  • Morgan, James J.
Defense Date:29 May 1975
Non-Caltech Author Email:gptreweek (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
U.S. Public Health Service Training GrantUNSPECIFIED
U.S. Veterans AdministrationUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:04182014-094111781
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8192
Deposited By: Dan Anguka
Deposited On:18 Apr 2014 19:47
Last Modified:21 Dec 2019 04:48

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