You might already know something about bioremediation but maybe you’re just not aware of its name.
If you’ve ever seen news coverage of oil spills or other contaminants that professionals have had to clean up, that’s bioremediation in action!
What is bioremediation?
Bioremediation can be defined as a branch of biotechnology. It makes use of living organisms, such as bacteria, to remove pollutants and toxins from water, soil, and land. This can take the form of removing oil spills or heavy metals.
With that in mind, let’s explore bioremediation in greater detail. Here’s our ultimate guide on everything you should know about it.
What’s The Bioremediation Process All About?
Bioremediation not only uses microorganisms for various beneficial purposes to maintain our environments, but it also stimulates their growth.
If there’s a microbe or bacteria that consumes contaminants such as pesticides or oil, the process of bioremediation will use them in order to mop up these contaminants in a natural way, which then become sources of energy or food for those microorganisms.
The benefit of this is that it’s a win-win: the bacteria get “food” and we get a cleaner environment!
In order to successfully eliminate contaminants, the process of bioremediation needs to be finely-tuned. The correct nutrients and temperatures are required, for example.
Sometimes what’s known as amendments will be added to the environment in question, such as air or vegetable oil. These serve the purpose of helping the microorganisms to thrive, and the result is that the bioremediation process will get done faster and more successfully.
Although there are ways to speed up the bioremediation process, it can take months, if not years, to complete!
Factors such as what contaminants are being eliminated, the temperature in the contaminated area, and the size of the area that’s contaminated, all contribute to how long the process will take.
In addition, if the bioremediation process happens off site, such as in the case of the weather being inhospitable, then this could also require longer time frames.
With that in mind, there’s on-site and off-site bioremediation:
- In situ bioremediation is basically on-site cleaning, or bioremediation that takes place in the site where the contaminants are located.
- Ex situ bioremediation is when the treatment occurs by removing the contamination from the site. So, the treatment process takes place elsewhere.
What Are Some Examples Of Bioremediation?
To better understand bioremediation, let’s look at two bioremediation examples that are quite common.
Oil spill clean-ups
These are one of the most common examples of bioremediation. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused three million barrels of oil to be spilled off the Gulf of Mexico.
The bioremediation process made use of two methods to clean it up and remove the contaminants.
These were bioaugmentation, in which a small quantity of oil-degrading microbes were injected into the affected area; and biostimulation, which is when nutrients are used to stimulate the growth of the oil-degrading microbes so that the rate of remediation can be bolstered.
Crime scene clean-ups.
Yes, professionals who clean crime scenes are taking part in bioremediation! Crime scenes contain various biohazards, such as blood and bodily fluids, as well as infectious diseases. These can contaminate the surroundings.
Before bioremediation came about, the use of harsh chemicals to clean up crime scenes, such as ammonia, was used. But these chemicals are harmful to the environment as well as the people using them.
Therefore, bioremediation replaced chemical processes. How does it work?
It makes use of enzyme cleaners that have sanitizing properties and can break down the contaminants in the crime scene in a much safer way.
Common Types Of Bioremediation
Based on the above examples, which are quite different from each other, it’s clear to see that bioremediation will make use of different strategies in order to decontaminate the environment. So, with that in mind, let’s explore common types of bioremediation that are used today.
- Microbial bioremediation. This is when microorganisms are used to consume contaminants, which they view as a food source.
- Phytoremediation. This type of bioremediation makes use of plants. Plants can bind to, and clean, various types of pollutants, such as metals, pesticides, and chlorinated solvents. In the case of them eliminating metals such as lead, scientists then extract or “mine” the metals from the plants.
- Mycoremediation. This is when fungi’s digestive enzymes debase contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.
- Bioventing. This type of bioremediation makes use of soil microbes that are stimulated with air, helping to boost the process of eliminating contaminants. How this common bioremediation strategy works is by drilling small holes into soil so that gases can be produced by microbial action and then released. This is useful for soil and groundwater problems. By tweaking the vent rate, it’s possible to control the rate of oxygen and nutrients.
- Bioleaching. This makes use of living organisms to extract metals from ore.
- Landfarming. This is sort of like a soil transplant. It involves taking contaminated soils and sediment and transporting them to other sites so that they can be added to healthy, clean soils.
- Bioaugmentation. This is when bacteria is used to quicken the rate of contaminant degradation.
- Rhizofiltration. Interestingly, in rhizofiltration, roots are used to filter contaminated groundwater, wastewater, and surface water.
- Biosparging. This is when air is injected at high pressure into the soil or underneath groundwater. This boosts the concentration of oxygen. It’s an affordable and effective process.
- Biostimulation. This is when scientists add nutrients like oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus to polluted environmental sites so that they can encourage the bacteria that’s already present there to break down the toxic contaminants. When compared to other types of bioremediation, biostimulation is considered to be the most effective way of eliminating hydrocarbons, which are compounds of hydrogen and carbon that are found in substances such as petroleum.
The Benefits Of Bioremediation
There are many benefits of the bioremediation process. These include the following:
- Bioremediation is a natural process that doesn’t have harmful side effects for the environment or site that needs to be contaminated.
- When it can be done on site, bioremediation doesn’t involve the dangerous transport of materials or chemicals.
- It doesn’t require a large amount of equipment.
- It doesn’t cause distress to people, such as those in close proximity to the clean-up site, because it creates minimal disturbance and makes use of organic processes to prevent chemical toxins from being produced.
- It’s budget friendly because it’s not expensive to maintain.
- Since contaminants are less likely to escape, it decreases liability, which makes it safer.
- It doesn’t use a lot of energy.
- It has a lot of acceptance from regulatory authorities which makes it easier to use.
What About The Elimination Of Plastic?
Plastic waste is a huge problem for our planet. It was found that in 2017, plastic that found its way into landfills made up 26.8 million tons of waste, as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports. Scientists are working on innovative ways to naturally eliminate plastic.
A noteworthy piece of research was conducted by Japanese researchers in 2016. Published in the Science journal, this research found that a species of bacteria actually breaks down molecular bonds in polyethylene terephthalate, otherwise known as PET. It’s the most common type of plastic.
By working through many samples of this plastic pollution at a recycling facility, they found a colony of this bacteria that sees the plastic as food!
Another milestone was reached in 2017, when biologist Federica Bertocchini from the Institute of Biomedicine & Biotechnology of Cantabria found that wax worm caterpillars disintegrate polyethylene, as C&En reports.
These types of studies are ground-breaking because they show promise for the decontamination of our land and oceans due to the plastic problem.
What are bioreactors?
When it comes to bioremediation, bioreactors refer to a container or vessel where the biological degradation of contaminants can be isolated and effectively controlled.
Is composting a type of bioremediation?
If you own a compost pile, you might not realize it but you’re participating in bioremediation! This is because composting makes use of organic waste that decomposes naturally in conditions that thrive with oxygen.
Bioremediation is an effective way of preserving the integrity and health of the environment. It basically refers to how scientists find ways to clean up polluted areas, whether those are on land or in the ocean.
In this article, we’ve looked at bioremediation in great detail, outlining its processes, types, benefits, and how it can be used in the future to destroy plastic before it destroys our planet.