Urea hydrolysis and precipitation dynamics in a urine-collecting system
Blockages caused by inorganic precipitates are a major problem of urine-collecting systems. The trigger of precipitation is the hydrolysis of urea by bacterial urease. While the maximum amount of precipitates, i.e. the precipitation potential, can be estimated with equilibrium calculations, little is known about the dynamics of ureolysis and precipitation. To gain insight in these processes, we performed batch experiments with precipitated solids and stored urine from a urine-collecting system and later simulated the results with a computer model. We found that urease-active bacteria mainly grow in the pipes and are flushed into the collection tank. Both, bacteria and free urease, hydrolyse urea. Only few days are necessary for complete urea depletion in the collection tank. Two experiments with precipitated solids from the pipes showed that precipitation sets in soon after ureolysis has started. At the end of the experiments, 11% and 24% of urea was hydrolysed while the mass concentration of newly formed precipitates already corresponded to 87% and 97% of the precipitation potential, respectively. We could simulate ureolysis and precipitation with a computer model based on the surface dislocation approach. The simulations showed that struvite and octacalcium phosphate (OCP) are the precipitating minerals. While struvite precipitates already at low supersaturation, OCP precipitation starts not until a high level of supersaturation is reached. Since measurements and computer simulations show that hydroxyapatite (HAP) is the final calcium phosphate mineral in urine solutions, OCP is only a precursor phase which slowly transforms into HAP.