What You Need To Know About This Revolutionary “Old” Way To Clean Up Pollution
Bioremediation may seem like an intimidating word at first glance. It’s a relatively long, scientific sounding word with a lot of syllables. To decode its meaning, remember the lessons you learned in grade school. Break down the different parts of the word;
- ‘Bio’ is a root word which means ‘life or related to living things.’ Think of the word biology – the study of life.
- The next part, ‘remedi,’ is from the word remedy. We all know that a remedy is something that heals – or eliminates something that is undesirable.
- The last part of the word, ‘-ation,’ is a suffix that means ‘action or process.’
When you put all of these parts together, you can deduce that bioremediation is a process that uses living organisms to eliminate undesirable waste and help heal the environment.
From glaciers to deserts, every single place on planet Earth is home to its own unique living system including microscopic bacteria and enzymes. Bioremediation is all about working together with these systems in order to achieve the goal of cleaning up the waste left behind by human actions.
We’ve noticed that most of the available sources of information related to bioremediation are filled with complex technical jargon. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the different types of bioremediation and their capabilities in a way that everyone can understand.
We’ll also provide examples of successful bioremediation efforts around the world, and give a glimpse into potential future applications. As ambassadors of the field, we want to spread the word about the amazing things that bioremediation can do. It is our hope that this fast-growing area of environmental services will help reverse pollution, while providing cost-effective solution for businesses who need waste cleanup.
Before we get into the different types, we’ll cover the history as well as some basic bioremediation jargon (terminology). This is the vocabulary used in the field that relates to the overall process.
Bioremediation sounds like a word from a sci-fi movie thriller. While it is sometimes called a different name, it’s actually becoming quite common. You may have heard of some of the various bioremediation efforts going on today around the world without knowing it. Considered by many to be a revolutionary way to clean up pollution in the environment, it’s actually an old process that dates back centuries. Even the Romans used it to clean wastewater back in 600 BC.
To provide water to their growing city, the Romans built aqueducts which in turn created wastewater that needed to be dealt with. They had to build an enormous and sophisticated sewage system, which still exists today. Once tainted water was collected in its maze of drainage troughs, it was allowed to go through the process of natural biodegradation. This was a breakthrough technology in that era.
When you stop to consider that the bioremediation process has actually been used by mother nature since the beginning of time, you realize that it is considerably older than mere centuries. It was the work of microbes and their ability to transform our planet that ultimately created the right mix of elements to support life. It’s our planet’s very own way of cleaning the environment naturally.
Modern bioremediation was developed by petroleum engineer, George M. Robinson in the 1960s. He performed experiments with microbes placed in glass jars that contained pollutants. He tried adding different types of bacteria to the jars and realized that certain types worked to break the pollutant down. He shared his findings with the scientific community and his methods were eventually tested as a solution to various environmental problems. Robinson is credited with being the first person to ever use microbes in a large oil spill cleanup effort. Ever since his breakthroughs, people have been using and improving the bioremediation process to make it more powerful and efficient. Now bioremediation is used to clean all types of hazardous spills all over the world.
In Situ vs Ex Situ
The terms in situ and ex situ relate to where the bioremediation process will take place. During in situ treatment, the polluted soil, water, or other materials are left at the original site. This option usually costs less since it requires less physical labor, less time, and less resources such as trucks and storage containers. It is also safer, since it doesn’t require that workers spend much time in contact with the hazardous pollutants or transporting contaminated materials
Special care must be taken when overseeing this type of cleanup. There must be a way to confirm that contaminants have actually been broken down and haven’t simply washed away to surrounding areas. It is also important to make sure that the hazardous waste is fully contained while the cleanup is underway, as not to let any wildlife come in contact with it.
Sometimes environmental conditions are simply not favorable for in situ treatment to work effectively. The success of contaminants being eradicated in place depends on how much time the spill has had to seep into the ground or spread, the type of pollutant, availability of helpful microbes and nutrients in the environment, as well as climate and other factors.
It is sometimes deemed necessary to take more precise control over the process. This is when ex situ remediation is used. During an ex situ cleanup, contaminated materials are excavated and moved to a place where every aspect can be monitored; nutrient levels, the amount of oxygen present, temperature and more. There are three main options when performing ex situ remediation; landfarming, biopiling and bioreactors.
Landfarming is done by placing the contaminated soil, water or other materials in a large, specially lined tray and simply mixing in additional nutrients from time to time. This oxygenates and encourages the growth of bacteria that naturally clean the spilled oil or other pollutants.
Biopiling is when the contaminated materials are stacked in a way that allows air to flow through them. They are then left to remediate on their own. Oxygen is sometimes all that is needed to boost the speed at which hazardous chemicals and other pollutants recede.
Bioreactors are the most extreme type of ex situ remediation. These are large, sealed containers that act as a giant petri dish for the growth of very specific organisms. Only the most helpful microbes that can break down the contaminant at hand are allowed to flourish in the bioreactor. This is achieved through precise measurements and adjustments of every aspect of the enclosed ecosystem.
While ex situ methods are more complicated because they require materials to be excavated and hauled off-site, they do have some merits. Some types of compounds take much longer to remediate if not done in this manner. These carefully managed conditions provide a faster route to cleanup. Also, there is no interference from outside forces or threat of the contaminants being spread to nearby areas.
Typically used in situ, the biostimulation method of remediation works by kicking nature into overdrive. Samples are taken from the polluted site and analyzed to determine which microbes, bacteria, enzymes and decomposers are present.
Next, an environmental cleanup company will decide what can be done to increase the numbers of the microbes, bacteria, enzymes and decomposers found in the sample. They’ll target the types that are best at attacking the specific type of environmental hazard they are dealing with. Nutrients and other additives are then added to the area to encourage these natural helpers to flourish. Some examples of these additives are phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen, or carbon which may have already been present, but not in high enough quantities to be of any help.
The good thing about this method is that it doesn’t introduce anything new into the environment. The cleanup is performed by the same microorganisms that were there all along…but faster. A primary obstacle to the success of this method is that microorganisms are not very capable of penetrating deep into dense surfaces on their own. Clay, rock, or other hard compacted surfaces pose a challenge when trying to get the microbes to reach the pollutant.
In some cases, there are no organisms present that are capable of breaking down the molecules of a contaminant. This means that it is necessary to introduce new ones to the site that would have never grown there on their own. This is called bioaugmentation; altering the environment by adding microbes that were cultured in a lab.
This method is somewhat sensitive because there is concern as to how the non-native species will behave. It is possible that it will not survive at all, and will represent a big waste of time and resources. There is also a risk that the population will explode, and have negative effects on the surrounding environment. Although, an argument can be made that these effects would not be as bad as whatever pollutant they were employed to clean up in the first place.
Researchers are also working to develop new types of genetically engineered microbes, but face obstacles. There is much debate over how safe they are to use, so most of their testing and research must be performed in an enclosed lab setting. It is difficult to know how they would behave in the field. For this reason, progress in perfecting these organisms has been very slow.
Biostimulation and bioaugmentation methods are not mutually exclusive. The two have been used in tandem to enhance the effectiveness of one another in some instances.
Types Of Bioremediation
It is important to know that each situation is unique. The strategy that works well on a hydraulic oil (aka: hydraulic fluid) spill at a construction site may not be ideal for a sandy beach covered in crude oil. For that reason, a variety of different clean up ‘tools’ have been sought out, in the form of bioremediation techniques.
Before an environmental service or cleanup contractor can take any action, analysis of the situation must be completed. Factors that play a role in choosing which cleanup method to use include:
- Available budget
- Environment and terrain of the site
- Type of spill or contaminant
- Volume of the spill or contaminant
- Length of time the problem has been sitting
In some cases, a combination of the different methods can be used to increase the effectiveness of each other.
Most of the time, when the term ‘bioremediation’ is used it is in reference to the use of bacteria or other microorganisms unless otherwise stated. This is because microbial bioremediation is the most common type. It is usually the fastest, making it the go-to solution for sites that need to be cleaned up quickly. Business properties, construction sites, and other areas that are close to the general public call for a swift and complete solution.
This method pertains to both stimulation of the existing microbes in the environment and the introduction of new ones. It has a multitude of applications, due to the sheer number of different microorganisms that nature has to offer. Whatever type of pollutant is in need of remediation, there is most likely a microbe out there that can help get rid of it. The army of tiny cleaners actually consumes the volatile substance and uses it for energy.
Microbes are nature’s way of cleaning up many different types of hazardous spills, and can even help restore areas that have been abused for many years. Microbes have the ability to metabolize many types of hydrocarbons, fossil fuels, solvents, herbicides, pesticides and more. They don’t store the substances within themselves, instead they actually ‘eat’ the pollutants that are toxic to most other species, digest them, and then release them back into the ecosystem as simpler, less harmful substances. The fact that the hazardous substance itself acts as a food source for the organisms means that they actively seek out every last bit of it.
The length of time that it takes for the process to work is affected by a variety of factors. For example, while the concentration of the contaminant is high, the microbes have more food, so they work faster. Also, they are able to work their way through water faster than solid surfaces, or through less dense materials like sand faster than clay. This is because the less permeable a soil or substance is, the less air can make it’s way in. As we have already covered, oxygen is a major part of the health of a population of microbes.
All of these pieces to the puzzle are taken into account before a plan can be set in motion. The goal is to restore the location to its original condition as quickly as possible.
The use of living plants to help clean up polluted environments is known as phytoremediation. Certain plants can physically draw toxic heavy metals and very complex organic contaminants out of soil, standing water and the air. These contaminants are then stored away inside the plant’s tissue, metabolized, or converted to a harmless substance before being expelled back into the environment.
In many cases, if native plants are found to be growing on a contaminated site, then those plants are capable of surviving whatever contaminant is present. This makes them a logical choice for bioremediation. In order to help these plants clean the soil and water faster, a biofertilizer can be added. Biofertilizers are an example of bioaugmentation. Helpful bacteria are added to the root system of the plants that accelerate their growth and make them healthier.
If there aren’t enough native plants present at a contaminated site, new ones need to be planted in order to carry out phytoremediation. Certain varieties have been found to be very hearty and are able to survive in areas that would kill other plants. Willow, alfalfa, water hyacinths, various species of grass, and many more have been found to be capable of doing the job.
When choosing which one to use for a given bioremediation project, many
factors are considered. The roots must grow deep enough into the ground to reach the pollutant. Local wildlife cannot be allowed to consume the plants, so if there are animals that live nearby a barrier will be needed. Weather patterns and other environmental factors must be suitable. Most importantly, the cleanup of the contaminants must be done in a timely fashion. If the process is likely to take a very long time, alternative methods must be considered.
Using plants to clean chemical hazards has advantages such as low cost, the ability to cover large areas, relatively minimal maintenance, the soil remaining intact and in place, and a low risk of contaminants spreading to nearby areas. The soil might even be healthier afterward than it was prior to the pollution, since plants act as natural fertilizers.
The only drawback of this method is that it typically takes a long time, as it literally depends on ‘watching grass grow.’ It is only seen as a viable option when the land in question is not slotted for a subsequent project, and there is little danger to surrounding areas.
The use of fungi is rare in comparison to other bioremediation methods. Known as mycoremediation, it is typically done in situ, and is reserved for very specific circumstances. Fungi are able to survive in environments with little to no moisture. They can also thrive in areas with very high saturations of toxic substances.
These resilient organisms are sometimes the only realistic method of bioremediation in cases where bacteria cannot survive the environmental extremes. They offer a viable option in situations where pollutants are difficult to access, deep within the earth or physically blockaded. They are also able to break down larger molecules than bacteria – so they are more suited to certain types of pollutants, such as those containing heavy metals.
When deciding if fungi should be used to remediate an area that has been contaminated, experts in the field consider a variety of criteria. They need to examine the type and saturation level of the pollutant, pH, and most importantly the terrain that they will be dealing with. While the fungi themselves are relatively inexpensive, bioremediation costs can skyrocket if it proves difficult to maintain oxygen levels throughout the site.
Just like microbes, there are many different types of fungi. Each species has its own unique characteristics and specialties, so it requires a lot of research to choose the perfect one for a given bioremediation project. Most of the data on the performance of these fungi are the result of lab testing so there is little based on actual field studies. This is because bacteria are often the default choice, and fungi haven’t really been given a chance to prove themselves. It is probable that the use of fungi will become more common in the future as more is discovered about their capabilities.
Bioremediation Around The World
While still fairly new, bioremediation techniques have been steadily gaining popularity in the past decade. They have been used all over the world to restore environments that have been damaged by pollutants. They range from relatively small cleanup efforts to massive contamination covering hundreds of miles. More and more success stories keep surfacing.
The technique used in each case is specifically chosen to match the environment and type of pollutant. We’ll discuss a few examples to illustrate the versatility of bioremediation and the many types of environmental cleanup tools that have been adapted.
South Africa – Microorganisms Are Being Used To Clean Mine Water
Our first case comes from the Department of Chemical Engineering
and the Future Water Institute at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Researchers there are harnessing the power of microbes to treat contaminated wastewater produced by the country’s robust mining industry. The region is riddled with abandoned gold and coal mines each presenting their own set of problems to the surrounding areas. If the issue is not addressed, there is a threat of chemicals such as cyanide seeping into the groundwater. This would harm all surrounding wildlife, vegetation and humans for miles.
Lead molecular biologist at the institute, Rob Huddy, has identified hundreds of microorganisms present in the current wastewater treatment process. Of those, he has singled out only five that are capable of breaking down the harmful chemicals. The next step that he takes is to figure out what needs to be done so that the five key micro-organisms can flourish, and do their job optimally. Encouraging their growth is key to achieving the most thorough way of making the mine water safe.
Huddy’s hope is that by successfully treating wastewater produced by mining, he can help to not only protect the surrounding environment, but also people and animals from harm. He can also make it possible to provide a valuable source of clean water in a country that is suffering from drought and water shortage.
Nigeria – The Use Of Plants And Microbes To Clean Petroleum And Fuel Contaminated Soil
Another part of the world in desperate need of restoration is located in Nigeria; the Niger Delta. Rich in petroleum, this area has been exploited for oil and gas production for over 75 years. It is now one of the most polluted places on the planet. The land, water, and even the air has been polluted. Researchers at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria are working to find a solution to this mess. Experiments are being done with different types of plants to determine their ability to help purify the soil and water.
So far, biochemist Eucharia Nwaichi has found a couple of different ways the plants can help. First, legumes and grasses have a natural ability to directly take up hydrocarbons that can’t be dissolved. This keeps them in one place and reduces their ability to be washed into nearby areas. Secondly, the plants produce enzymes that aid in the removal of the pollutants. Lastly, the researchers introduce native microorganisms that are normally contained in the plant nodules to encourage the cleanup. This bioaugmentation increases the numbers of beneficial microbes, giving nature a much-needed helping hand.
It takes a very hearty, very special type of plant to be able to grow in an area that has been made toxic. Where most other varieties have failed, the university team has narrowed their focus to four main types that have shown promising results; velvet bean, mustard plants, lemongrass and fimbristylis. Once they pinpoint which species do the best job, they will plant more of them, and also create synthetic versions of their enzymes to add to the community of microorganisms. This will help speed their growth, and allow them to break down hydrocarbons faster.
Researchers in Nigeria are hoping that the region’s crude oil pollution will one day be reversed, allowing vast swaths of land to be made available once more for farming and agriculture. More crops being produced could mean notable social and economic reform, which could help many nearby communities.
India – The Use Of Microbes To Remove Algae And Rejuvenate A Lake In Delhi
In New Delhi, India there is a city park that spans 90 acres. Home to historical monuments, tombs and 15th century architectural artifacts, it is protected by national preservation societies. With its colorful trees and flowers, central location and beautiful walking paths, the park is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. One of the most visited attractions within the park is a lake situated right in the middle of the grounds. Over time, the lake has become overrun with an abundance of harmful algae, which is producing an unpleasant smell. The algae also threatens fish, frogs, birds and other wildlife.
Local officials have developed a plan to restore the lake, and add new features that will add to its beauty. They will add more fountains to the lake, along with a water treatment plant to clean the water. The plant will use natural microbes and enzymes to remove contaminants that encourage the growth of algae. This plan will eliminate the need to drain the lake to allow for cleaning which was performed at intervals in the past. The restoration team plans to introduce new wildlife, including a family of ducks to live at the lake. Since bioremediation is environmentally friendly, the ducks as well as any other species living in the lake will not be harmed by the process.
Iraq – Environmental Agencies Using Microbes To Help Cleanup Oil Spills
We now move to war-torn Iraq, and the site of a much more serious, and much larger pollution problem. The small town of Qayyarah, its neighbors, and all of the surrounding areas have fallen victim to those calling themselves Islamic State fighters. These men destructively torched nineteen oil wells in the summer of 2016, during a time of intense conflict. Since then, an immeasurable amount of crude oil has escaped from the damaged wells. Thousands of barrels flowed into the ground, down the streets, and even into the Tigris River, the main supply of drinking water for the entire Iraqi population.
Once the fires themselves were brought under control, after almost a year of work, North Oil Company started a massive cleanup effort. As the company in charge of northern Iraq’s oil fields, they have their work cut out for them. They are placing their faith, and their available budget, in microbes that can devour the oil. Bioremediation may be the only affordable and feasible approach to remove the toxic pollution from both the soil and the water.
The officials plan on adding nutrients to the area, as well as “bulking agents’ like wood chips that will increase oxygen levels and allow microbes to thrive. This biostimulation will accelerate the natural breakdown of the oil, so that it will dissipate faster. As Iraq continues to produce a large amount of oil while continuing to be a place of conflict, it is likely that bioremediation will be an important practice in this region for years to come.
California – Use Of Microorganisms To Clean Up Toxins At A Munitions Testing Ground
In the middle of bustling Santa Clarita, California there are close to 1,000 acres of land that have been sitting vacant for a long time. Used as a testing ground for fireworks and other explosives for close to 40 years, the ground was deemed too toxic to be utilized for anything useful. That is changing thanks to bioremediation. The contaminated site, known as Whittaker-Bermite, is being cleaned up and has newfound potential.
The main problem with the area was the residue of a solid fuel component called Perchlorate. Left behind by the munitions that were exploded there, the substance has been linked to a multitude of health problems. Specifically, thyroid problems and damage to developing babies in pregnant women. In order for the large swath of land to be restored, it needed to be completely cleansed of this poison.
The environmental services company that was hired for the job determined that ex-situ bioremediation would be necessary. They dug up and removed 54,000 cubic yards of soil from the site, and hauled it to another location where it could be treated. Micro-organisms were used to break down the chemicals and remove them. Once finished, all of the dirt was mixed with grass seeds and mulch, to encourage healthy nutrient levels, and returned to the site. Bioremediation has helped restore what was once a toxic wasteland into a prime piece of real estate.
While these cases are scattered around the globe, they all share a common theme; successful cleanup of pollution that would have once been considered irreversible. Advancements in bioremediation strategies are providing hope that the damage done to the earth by human actions can be undone.
We are also learning new ways to solve problems that arise within industries such as construction, car repair, foodservice, air travel and more. In the past, if a business suffered an accident which created an environmental hazard, it would be catastrophic. Oil spills, leaking of poisonous chemicals or damaging substances escaping into the ground could potentially spell disaster for a company and it’s workers. All work would be halted for a considerable amount of time, cleanup efforts could span weeks or months, large amounts of revenue would be lost, and the business would be greatly impacted. With new methods of remediation, the worksite can be back up and running within hours with little disruption to productivity. Cleanup of these types of accidents is now manageable and relatively affordable.
The Future Of Bioremediation
As a fairly new field of study, there is still much to be learned about each bioremediation method. There are countless laboratories around the world that are working to unlock and document all of their capabilities. However, the best way to learn is through experience. Every new pollution problem that presents itself is an opportunity to try new combinations of biostimulation, bioaugmentation, microbes, fungi, plants, enzymes and more. Eventually, there will be enough data on record that it will make it easier to choose the most effective cocktail for each specific situation.
Environmental cleanup teams can create a plan that is tailored to a specific pollutant and setting. Whether they are remediating oil contaminated soil or performing groundwater contamination cleanup after pesticide runoff. The crew will know before beginning the project exactly what they need to do to be successful. There are even plans underway to develop programs or software that will be capable of computing how long bioremediation will take, and how effective each of the various options would be based on the conditions at hand. This means that less time and resources will be wasted on failed projects.
Researchers will continue to learn more about the vast numbers of microorganisms, fungi and other degraders on our planet, and the roles they play in breaking down waste. New types of microbes will be genetically engineered in labs, able to overcome the most harsh conditions. They will be adapted to better target specific chemicals and compounds. Each type of bioremediation will become more effective as time goes on, allowing for larger areas to be cleaned faster and more thoroughly.
There will also be exciting advancements in the way that these all natural helpers are introduced to pollutants. Innovations are being made in the way that nutrients, oxygen, enzymes, and other key ingredients are ‘injected’ into various types of materials, allowing for the most efficient mixing with biodegraders. One idea being tested is the use of pressurized air to create cracks in the ground that the bioremediators could travel through. Another tactic that has shown promise is to inject hot steam into contaminated materials in an effort to loosen contaminants.
Perhaps the most important research has been in the development of new biosurfactants. These environmentally friendly compounds encourage the mixing together of the pollutant with whatever bioremediation agent is being introduced, on a molecular level.
As with any new technology, the process and science behind bioremediation will be streamlined the more it is used. As a result, the cost of performing such large cleanups will continue to go down. This creates hope for the health of our planet. These revolutionary ways of reversing environmental harm will be made available to everyone, no matter what their budget is or where they are located. The field is growing remarkably fast. Experts are forecasting that the industry should grow to $186.3 billion worldwide by 2023, growing at a rate of about 15% per year. The future of bioremediation is full of possibilities and our planet’s future is a bit brighter due to bioremediation.
Bioremediation By OPG+
An example of biostimulation, OPG+ cleanup formula does not introduce
any new microorganisms to the environment. Rather, it sparks the rapid growth of the native bacteria that are already present. The OPG+ formula uses plant enzymes to help the bacteria use hazardous waste as food. The molecules of the spill are broken down into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces for the microbes. At the same time, the special blend of nutrients encourages the helpful bacteria to thrive.
Once the bacteria do their job, all that is left behind is CO2 and water. The formula is effective on a variety of substances including oil, petroleum, grease, hydraulic fluid, aviation fuel, gasoline, pesticides, herbicides, and any other type of hydrocarbon. OPG+ uses an in situ approach, which means that there is no secondary cleanup required such as digging or hauling materials off site.
The OPG+ formula is able to perform water cleanup and restoration in fresh or salt waterways. It’s also capable of remediating a diverse assortment of situations on land. This product can help restore soil, sand, asphalt, concrete, painted surfaces, and many more. It is even safe to use around lawns, gardens, and pets as it is completely nontoxic.
OPG+ strives to help solve environmental cleanup problems for businesses, while reducing cleanup costs. The Quick Response Team is made up of skilled technicians that can dispatch to most locations within hours. OPG+ is also very proud of their role in protecting the planet. Used to clean up more than 36,000 spills across the globe, their formula is part of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Contingency Plan for Oil Spills, and is used by the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
OPG+ environmental cleanup services use a 100% biodegradable product that is the world’s most environmentally safe and cost-effective remediation process for the mitigation of hazardous spills.
OPG+ continues to find more applications for their formula and looks forward to a future full of possibilities. It is their mission to help businesses, people, and mother nature overcome the obstacles that come along with modern advancements.
Bioremediation: using microorganisms to clean up the environment
Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World
Biostimulation for the Enhanced Degradation of Herbicides in Soil
Hindawi Applied and Environmental Soil Science
ScienceDirect Journals & Books
In Situ Bioremediation: When Does it Work?
By National Research Council, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, Committee on In Situ Bioremediation
In Situ Bioremediation: When Does it Work?
The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine / National Academy of Sciences
Biostimulation proved to be the most efficient method in the comparison of in situ soil remediation treatments after a simulated oil spill accident
The National Center for Biotechnology Information
Microbewiki / Kenyon College Department of Biology
Bioremediation Market future scenario and Research details developments by 2023
Guru Online News