The controlled crystallisation of struvite (MgNH4
O) is a viable means for the recovery and recycling of phosphorus (P) from municipal and industrial wastewaters. However, an efficient implementation of this recovery method in water treatment systems requires a fundamental understanding of struvite crystallisation mechanisms, including the behavior and effect of metal contaminants during struvite precipitation. Here, we studied the crystallisation pathways of struvite from aqueous solutions using a combination of ex situ and in situ time-resolved synthesis and characterization techniques, including synchrotron-based small- and wide-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS/WAXS) and cryogenic transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM). Struvite syntheses were performed both in the pure Mg-NH4
system as well as in the presence of cobalt (Co), which, among other metals, is typically present in waste streams targeted for P-recovery. Our results show that in the pure system and at Co concentrations < 0.5 mM, struvite crystals nucleate and grow directly from solution, much in accordance with the classical notion of crystal formation. In contrast, at Co concentrations ≥ 1 mM, crystallisation was preceded by the transient formation of an amorphous nanoparticulate phosphate phase. Depending on the aqueous Co/P ratio, this amorphous precursor was found to transform into either (i) Co-bearing struvite (at Co/P < 0.3) or (ii) cobalt phosphate octahydrate (at Co/P > 0.3). These amorphous-to-crystalline transformations were accompanied by a marked colour change from blue to pink, indicating a change in Co2+
coordination in the formed solid from tetrahedral to octahedral. Our findings have implications for the recovery of nutrients and metals during struvite crystallisation and contribute to the ongoing general discussion about the mechanisms of crystal formation.
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