The effects of sediment size fraction and associated algal biofilms on the kinetics of phosphorus release

BE Gainswin, WA House, Barry Leadbeater, PD Armitage, J Patten

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Experiments using flumes containing sediment of three different size fractions, from two sites on the River Tame, investigated the influences of sediment particle size, and an associated biofilm, on sediment-water exchanges in heterogeneous sediment deposits. This is the first study undertaken to understand the kinetics of the release of soluble reactive phosphorus from sediments of natural systems to identify which of the size compartments affected those fluxes most. Samples of fine material (20 mm) were collected over a period of several weeks and brought to a fluvarium where they were placed in artificial, controlled flow, and flume channels. Synthetic solutions of similar ionic strength to the river were prepared using calcium chloride. Temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen of the solution overlying the sediment were monitored automatically whilst filtered samples were obtained at 2 h intervals over 48 h. The biomass, expressed as mg m(-2) chlorophyll a, of the algal component of the biofilm from the surface of the sediment was estimated using methanol extraction. Differences in the responses were observed between the sediment size fractions and the two sites, where contaminant concentrations varied. The equilibrium phosphate concentration and a phosphorus transfer index were used to establish that there was a net uptake of phosphorus by all three sediment size fractions, from both sites, at the time of sampling. The kinetic results showed very fast initial reactions of phosphorus release from the larger size fractions with a well-developed filamentous algal growth present implying a different mechanism than diffusion being involved. The stones and associated biofilms also released more phosphorus than the fine fraction, e.g. final release concentrations for the most contaminated site were: fines approximately 2.5 microM, gravel approximately 6.5 microM, and stones approximately 65.0 microM (expressed as soluble reactive phosphorus). Phosphorus fluxes, calculated assuming the concentration of phosphorus in the sediment was less than the equilibrium concentration, were a maximum at the most contaminated site, e.g. fines 6.4 nmol m(-2) s(-1), gravel 27 nmol m(-2) s(-1), and stones 109 nmol m(-2) s(-1) (normalised with respect to the river bed area). These results confirm that sediment having a biofilm and associated particulate material results in a greater flux than fine sediment, which does not support a filamentous biomass. Removal of the fine particulates trapped in the algal growth reduced soluble phosphorus release. These factors demonstrate that both gravel and stone substrates have an important control over the release of soluble reactive phosphorus.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)142-157
Number of pages16
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2006


  • equilibrium phosphate concentration
  • Trent
  • Tame
  • algal biofilm
  • sediment
  • soluble reactive phosphorus


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