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In environmental chemistry, the chemical oxygen demand (COD) test is commonly used to indirectly measure the amount of organic compounds in water. Most applications of COD determine the amount of organic pollutants found in surface water (e.g. lakes and rivers) or wastewater, making COD a useful measure of water quality. It is expressed in milligrams per liter (mg/L) also referred to as ppm (parts per million), which indicates the mass of oxygen consumed per liter of solution.
The basis for the COD test is that nearly all organic compounds can be fully oxidized to carbon dioxide with a strong oxidizing agent under acidic conditions. The amount of oxygen required to oxidize an organic compound to carbon dioxide, ammonia, and water is given by:
This expression includes the oxygen demand caused by the oxidation of ammonia into nitrate. The process of ammonia being converted into nitrate is referred to as nitrification. The following is the correct equation for the oxidation of ammonia into nitrate.
It is applied after the oxidation due to nitrification if the oxygen demand from nitrification must be known. Dichromate does not oxidize ammonia into nitrate, so this nitrification can be safely ignored in the standard chemical oxygen demand test.
For many years, the strong oxidizing agent potassium permanganate (KMnO4) was used for measuring chemical oxygen demand. Measurements were called oxygen consumed from permanganate, rather than the oxygen demand of organic substances. Potassium permanganate's effectiveness at oxidizing organic compounds varied widely, and in many cases biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) measurements were often much greater than results from COD measurements. This indicated that potassium permanganate was not able to effectively oxidize all organic compounds in water, rendering it a relatively poor oxidizing agent for determining COD.
Since then, other oxidizing agents such as ceric sulphate, potassium iodate, and potassium dichromate have been used to determine COD. Of these, potassium dichromate (K2Cr2O7) has been shown to be the most effective: it is relatively cheap, easy to purify, and is able to nearly completely oxidize almost all organic compounds.
In these methods, a fixed volume with a known excess amount of the oxidant is added to a sample of the solution being analyzed. After a refluxing digestion step, the initial concentration of organic substances in the sample is calculated from a titrimetric or spectrophotometric determination of the oxidant still remaining in the sample. As with all colorimetric methods blanks are used to control for contamination by outside material.
Potassium dichromate is a strong oxidizing agent under acidic conditions. (Acidity is usually achieved by the addition of sulfuric acid.) The reaction of potassium dichromate with organic compounds is given by:
where d = 2n/3 + a/6 - b/3 - c/2. Most commonly, a 0.25 N solution of potassium dichromate is used for COD determination, although for samples with COD below 50 mg/L, a lower concentration of potassium dichromate is preferred.
In the process of oxidizing the organic substances found in the water sample, potassium dichromate is reduced (since in all redox reactions, one reagent is oxidized and the other is reduced), forming Cr3+. The amount of Cr3+ is determined after oxidization is complete, and is used as an indirect measure of the organic contents of the water sample.
For all organic matter to be completely oxidized, an excess amount of potassium dichromate (or any oxidizing agent) must be present. Once oxidation is complete, the amount of excess potassium dichromate must be measured to ensure that the amount of Cr3+ can be determined with accuracy. To do so, the excess potassium dichromate is titrated with ferrous ammonium sulfate (FAS) until all of the excess oxidizing agent has been reduced to Cr3+. Typically, the oxidation-reduction indicator Ferroin is added during this titration step as well. Once all the excess dichromate has been reduced, the Ferroin indicator changes from blue-green to a reddish-brown. The amount of ferrous ammonium sulfate added is equivalent to the amount of excess potassium dichromate added to the original sample. Note: Ferroin Indicator is bright red from commercially prepared sources but when added to a digested sample containing potassium dichromate it exhibits a green hue. During the titration the color of the indicator changes from a green hue to a bright blue hue to a redish-brown upon reaching the endpoint. Ferroin indicator changes from red to pale blue when oxidized. 
A solution of 1.485 g 1,10-phenanthroline monohydrate is added to a solution of 695 mg FeSO4·7H2O in water, and the resulting red solution is diluted to 100 mL.
The following formula is used to calculate COD:
where b is the volume of FAS used in the blank sample, s is the volume of FAS in the original sample, and n is the normality of FAS. If milliliters are used consistently for volume measurements, the result of the COD calculation is given in mg/L.
The COD can also be estimated from the concentration of oxidizable compound in the sample, based on its stoichiometric reaction with oxygen to yield CO2 (assume all C goes to CO2), H2O (assume all H goes to H2O), and NH3 (assume all N goes to NH3), using the following formula:
For example, if a sample has 500 wppm of phenol:
Some samples of water contain high levels of oxidizable inorganic materials which may interfere with the determination of COD. Because of its high concentration in most wastewater, chloride is often the most serious source of interference. Its reaction with potassium dichromate follows the equation:
Prior to the addition of other reagents, mercuric sulfate can be added to the sample to eliminate chloride interference.
The following table lists a number of other inorganic substances that may cause interference. The table also lists chemicals that may be used to eliminate such interference, and the compounds formed when the inorganic molecule is eliminated.
|Inorganic molecule||Eliminated by||Elimination forms|
|Chloride||Mercuric sulfate||Mercuric chloride complex|
|Nitrite||Sulfamic acid||N2 gas|
Many governments impose strict regulations regarding the maximum chemical oxygen demand allowed in wastewater before they can be returned to the environment. For example, in Switzerland, a maximum oxygen demand between 200 and 1000 mg/L must be reached before wastewater or industrial water can be returned to the environment .