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Assessing biological stability of drinking water after reverse osmosis and remineralization

mohaned sousi (UNESCO-IHE/UT)

PhD project

Supervisors: Maria Kennedy (UNESCO-IHE), Sergio Salinas (UNESCO-IHE), Gang Liu (Key Laboratory of Drinking Water Science and Technology), Walter van der Meer (UT), Antoine Kemperman (UT)

Biological stability of drinking water is a vital topic due to its relevance to the public health where drinking water is considered biologically stable when bacterial regrowth, thus pathogenic bacteria e.g., Legionella, in the distribution networks is limited.

Two approaches are practiced to produce biologically stable potable water: (i) limiting the growth-supporting nutrients in the final water, and/or (ii) addition of disinfectant residual to the distributed water. However, in some countries, the Netherlands for instance, disinfectant residual addition is not practiced due to the risk of carcinogenic disinfection by-products formation. Therefore, growth-supporting nutrients have to be limited to very low concentrations in order to prohibit bacterial regrowth in the distribution networks. For this purpose, water treatment systems have to be designed to produce drinking water with a very high quality. Therefore, conventional water treatment processes are not always sufficient to achieve the targeted water quality - especially in terms of biological stability - and this raises the need for applying advanced water treatment technologies - e.g. membrane technology - in drinking water sector. Reverse osmosis (RO) systems are believed to be one of the potential solutions to produce ultrapure and biologically stable drinking water due to their ability to remove a large portion of growth-supporting nutrients. However, RO membranes should be coupled with other water post-treatment systems to add the basic minerals needed for the human body to the RO permeate (remineralization process). As a result, water post-treatment might have a negative impact on the biological stability of the original RO permeate.

Several methods can be applied to assess the biological stability of drinking water. Nevertheless, the bacterial growth potential (BGP) method is mainly used for this research. The BGP method implies collecting and analyzing water samples in carbon-free glassware with laboratory-based batch tests by monitoring bacterial counts over time using the flow cytometry (FCM) tool to perform simple, rapid and accurate analysis of cell count. However, the BGP method needs to be adapted for low-nutrient water e.g., RO permeate, which is sensitive to handling procedures.

This research will focus on: (i) developing and adapting the BGP method for low-nutrient water including lowering the limit of detection (LoD) of the method, (ii) assessing the impact of RO filtration and remineralization on biological stability of drinking water as compared to the conventional water treatment processes, (iii) evaluating the effect of different remineralization processes on the biological stability of the produced RO permeate, and (iv) identifying the factors affecting the bacterial growth, e.g. organic and inorganic nutrients availability (carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen) or other water characteristics (pH, mineral content and temperature).

The case study of this research is the drinking water treatment plant at Kamerik, the Netherlands (belongs to OASEN Drinking Water Company) where two water treatment lines are installed: 

(i) a full-scale conventional treatment line where elevated bacterial counts are observed in the currently distributed water, and (ii) a pilot-scale advanced treatment line with reverse osmosis and remineralization units which is proposed to improve the biological stability of the produced water.


Sousi, M., Liu, G., Salinas-Rodriguez, S.G., Chen, L, Dusseldorp, J., Wessels, P., Schippers, J.C., Kennedy, M.D., van der Meer, W., Multi-parametric assessment of biological stability of drinking water produced from groundwater: Reverse osmosis vs. conventional treatment, Water Research, 186 (1 November 2020), Article number 116317,

Mohaned Sousi, Sergio G. Salinas-Rodriguez, Gang Liu, Jan C. Schippers, Maria D. Kennedy, Walter van der Meer, Measuring Bacterial Growth Potential of Ultra-Low Nutrient Drinking Water Produced by Reverse Osmosis: Effect of Sample Pre-treatment and Bacterial Inoculum, Frontiers in Microbiology, 11 (2020), article 791,

Mohaned Sousi, Gang Liu, Sergio G. Salinas-Rodriguez, Aleksandra Knezev, Bastiaan Blankert, Jan C. Schippers, Walter van der Meer, Maria D. Kennedy, Further developing the bacterial growth potential method for ultra-pure drinking water produced by remineralization of reverse osmosis permeate, Water Research, 145 (2018), 687-696,