Bioremediation techniques are destruction or transformation techniques directed toward stimulating the microorganisms to grow and use the contaminants as a food and energy source by creating a favorable environment for the microorganisms. Generally, this means providing some combination of oxygen, nutrients, and moisture, and controlling the temperature and pH. Sometimes, microorganisms adapted for degradation of the specific contaminants are applied to enhance the process.
Biological processes are typically implemented at low cost. Contaminants can be destroyed or transformed, and little to no residual treatment is required. However, the process requires more time and it is difficult to determine whether contaminants have been destroyed. Biological treatment of PAHs leaves less degradable PAHs (cPAHs) behind. These higher molecular cPAHs are classified as carcinogens. Also, an increase in chlorine concentration leads to a decrease in biodegradability. Some compounds, however, may be broken down into more toxic by-products during the bioremediation process (e.g., TCE to vinyl chloride). An advantage over the in situ applications is that in ex situ applications, these by-products are contained in the treatment unit until nonhazardous end-products are produced.
Although not all organic compounds are amenable to biodegradation, bioremediation techniques have been successfully used to remediate soils, sludges, and ground water contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, wood preservatives, and other organic chemicals. Bioremediation is not yet commonly applicable for treatment of inorganic contaminants.
The rate at which microorganisms degrade contaminants is influenced by the specific contaminants present; oxygen supply; moisture; nutrient supply; pH; temperature; the availability of the contaminant to the microorganism (clay soils can adsorb contaminants making them unavailable to the microorganisms); the concentration of the contaminants (high concentrations may be toxic to the microorganism); the presence of substances toxic to the microorganism, e.g., mercury; or inhibitors to the metabolism of the contaminant. These parameters are discussed briefly in the following paragraphs.
Oxygen level in ex situ applications is easier to control than in in situ applications and is typically maintained by mechanical tilling, venting, or sparging.
Anaerobic conditions may be used to degrade highly chlorinated contaminants. This can be followed by aerobic treatment to complete biodegradation of the partially dechlorinated compounds as well as the other contaminants.
Water serves as the transport medium through which nutrients and organic constituents pass into the microbial cell and metabolic waste products pass out of the cell. Moisture levels in the range of 20% to 80% generally allow suitable biodegradation in soils.
Nutrients required for cell growth are nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and copper. If nutrients are not available in sufficient amounts, microbial activity will stop. Nitrogen and phosphorous are the nutrients most likely to be deficient in the contaminated environment and thus are usually added to the bioremediation system in a useable form (e.g., as ammonium for nitrogen and as phosphate for phosphorous).
pH affects the solubility, and consequently the availability, of many constituents of soil, which can affect biological activity. Many metals that are potentially toxic to microorganisms are insoluble at elevated pH; therefore, elevating the pH of the treatment system can reduce the risk of poisoning the microorganisms.
Temperature affects microbial activity in the treatment unit. The biodegradation rate will slow with decreasing temperature; thus, in northern climates bioremediation may be ineffective during part of the year unless it is carried out in a climate-controlled facility. The microorganisms remain viable at temperatures below freezing and will resume activity when the temperature rises. Too high a temperature can be detrimental to some microorganisms, essentially sterilizing the soil. Compost piles require periodic tilling to release self-generated heat.
Temperature also affects nonbiological losses of contaminants mainly through the volatilization of contaminants at high temperatures. The solubility of contaminants typically increases with increasing temperature; however, some hydrocarbons are more soluble at low temperatures than at high temperatures. Additionally, oxygen solubility decreases with increasing temperature. Temperature is more easily controlled ex situ than in situ.
Bioaugmentation involves the use of cultures that have been specially bred for degradation of a variety of contaminants and sometimes for survival under unusually severe environmental conditions. Sometimes microorganisms from the remediation site are collected, separately cultured, and returned to the site as a means of rapidly increasing the microorganism population at the site. Usually an attempt is made to isolate and accelerate the growth of the population of natural microorganisms that preferentially feed on the contaminants at the site. In some situations different microorganisms may be added at different stages of the remediation process because the contaminants in abundance change as the degradation proceeds. USAF research, however, has found no evidence that the use of non-native microorganisms is beneficial in the situations tested.
Cometabolism, in which microorganisms growing on one compound produce an enzyme that chemically transforms another compound on which they cannot grow, has been observed to be useful. In particular, microorganisms that degrade methane (methanotrophic bacteria) have been found to produce enzymes that can initiate the oxidation of a variety of carbon compounds.
Treatability or feasibility studies are used to determine whether bioremediation would be effective in a given situation. The extent of the study can vary depending on the nature of the contaminants and the characteristics of the site. For sites contaminated with common petroleum hydrocarbons (e.g., gasoline and/or other readily degradable compounds), it is usually sufficient to examine representative samples for the presence and level of an indigenous population of microbes, nutrient levels, presence of microbial toxicants, and soil characteristics such as pH, porosity, and moisture.
Available ex situ biological treatment technologies include biopiles, composting, genetically engineered organisms (white rot fungus), landfarming, and slurry phase biological treatment.