Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Engineering (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


John S Gierke


James R Mihelcic


The challenge for wastewater professionals is to design and operate treatment processes that support human well being and are environmentally sensitive throughout the life-cycle. This research focuses on one technology for small-scale wastewater treatment: the vertical flow constructed wetland (VFCW), which is herein investigated for the capacity to remove ammonium and nitrate nitrogen from wastewater. Hydraulic regime and presence/absence of vegetation are the basis for a three-phase bench scale experiment to determine oxygen transfer and nitrogen fate in VFCWs. Results show that 90% NH4+-N removal is achieved in aerobic downflow columns, 60% NO3--N removal occurs in anaerobic upflow columns, and 60% removal of total nitrogen can be achieved in downflow-upflow in-series. The experimental results are studied further using a variably saturated flow and reactive transport model, which allows a mechanistic explanation of the fate and transport of oxygen and nitrogen. The model clarifies the mechanisms of oxygen transport and nitrogen consumption, and clarifies the need for readily biodegradable COD for denitrification.

A VFCW is then compared to a horizontal flow constructed wetland (HFCW) for life cycle environmental impacts. High areal emissions of greenhouse gases from VFCWs compared to HFCWs are the driver for the study. The assessment shows that because a VFCW is only 25% of the volume of an HFCW designed for the same treatment quality, the VFCW has only 25-30% of HFCW impacts over 12 impact categories and 3 damage categories. Results show that impacts could be reduced by design improvements.

Design recommendations are downflow wetlands for nitrification, upflow wetlands for denitrification, series wetlands for total nitrogen removal, hydraulic load of 142 L/m2d, 30 cm downflow wetland depth, 1.0 m upflow wetland depth, recycle, vegetation and medium-grained sand. These improvements will optimize nitrogen removal, minimize gaseous emissions, and reduce wetland material requirements, thus reducing environmental impact without sacrificing wastewater treatment quality.