Aspect ratio and baffles impact hydraulic performance of full-size denitrifying bioreactors

Luciano Alves de Oliveira, Hannah Dougherty, Richard A C Cooke, Bryan M. Maxwell, Matthew J. Helmers, François Birgand, Cameron M Pittelkow, Reid D. Christianson, Laura E. Christianson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Denitrifying woodchip bioreactors treating subsurface drainage in the US have high aspect ratios (i.e., length: width ratios; approximately 4:1) to encourage plug flow dynamics. Improved understanding of bioreactor hydraulics across aspect ratios would help assess possible increased flexibility for this practice to capture greater hydraulic loading or provide greater nitrate mass removal. The objective of this study was to assess the hydraulic impacts of aspect ratio and baffles using conservative tracer testing at full-scale denitrifying woodchip bioreactors. Fourteen tracer tests were performed at six bioreactors, spanning three design styles: (1) “conventional” bioreactors with high aspect ratios of ≥2.6:1; (2) a “wide” bioreactor with a low aspect ratio of 0.3:1; and (3) a relatively wide “advanced” bioreactor with baffles placed to route flow sinuously perpendicular (sideways) to the hydraulic gradient. The wide bioreactor had the most dispersion, the most short circuiting, and was the most well mixed based on the tanks-in-series model. The advanced design with baffles had higher volumetric efficiencies than the conventional and wide designs (2.9, 2.2, and 2.1, respectively) and trended toward the highest nitrate removals. The concept of baffles at relatively wide bioreactors merits additional field-scale assessment to increase hydraulic loading while maintaining hydraulic efficiency. The Morill Dispersion and Short Circuiting Indices were strongly and significantly correlated (Pearson's r: −0.88) across the fourteen tests as were the volumetric and hydraulic efficiency metrics (r: 0.87). While aspect ratio and baffles have been well studied in wetlands and other reactor types, this work is the first to establish these concepts using tracer testing at three woodchip bioreactor design styles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106912
JournalEcological Engineering
StatePublished - Apr 2023


  • Dispersion
  • Hydraulic efficiency
  • Hydraulic retention time
  • Short circuiting
  • Tracer test

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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