Federal Remediation Technologies Roundtable

Phytoremediation - II


Phytoremediation is a set of processes that uses plants to clean contamination in ground water and surface water. There are several ways plants can be used for the phytoremediation. These mechanisms include enhanced rhizosphere biodegradation, hydraulic control, phyto-degradation and phyto-volatilization.

Enhanced Rhizosphere Biodegradation

Enhanced rhizosphere biodegradation takes place in the soil surrounding plant roots. Natural substances released by plant roots supply nutrients to microorganisms, which enhances their ability to biodegrade organic contaminants. Plant roots also loosen the soil and then die, leaving paths for transport of water and aeration. This process tends to pull water to the surface zone and dry the lower saturated zones.

Hydraulic Control

Depending on the type of trees, climate, and season, trees can act as organic pumps when their roots reach down towards the water table and establish a dense root mass that takes up large quantities of water.


Phyto-degradation is the metabolism of contaminants within plant tissues. Plants produce enzymes, such as dehalogenase and oxygenase, that help catalyze degradation. Investigations are proceeding to determine if both aromatic and chlorinated aliphatic compounds are amenable to phyto-degradation.


Phyto-volatilization occurs as plants take up water containing organic contaminants and release the contaminants into the air through their leaves. Plants can also break down organic contaminants and release breakdown products into air through leaves.


Phytoremediation can be used to clean up organic contaminants from surface water, ground water, leachate, and municipal and industrial wastewater.

Plants also produce enzymes, such as dehalogenase and oxygenase, which help catalyze degradation.


There are a number of limitations to phytoremediation

  • It is limited to shallow soils, streams, and ground water.
  • High concentrations of hazardous materials can be toxic to plants.
  • It involves the same mass transfer limitations as other biotreatments.
  • Climatic or seasonal conditions may interfere or inhibit plant growth, slow remediation efforts, or increase the length of the treatment period.
  • It can transfer contamination across media, e.g., from soil to air.
  • It is not effective for strongly sorbed (e.g., PCBs) and weakly sorbed contaminants.
  • Phytoremediation will likely require a large surface area of land for remediation.
  • The toxicity and bioavailability of biodegradation products is not always known. Products may be mobilized into ground water or bioaccumulated in animals. More research is needed to determine the fate of various compounds in the plant metabolic cycle to ensure that plant droppings and products manufactured by plants do not contribute toxic or harmful chemicals into the food chain or increase risk exposure to the general public.

Data Needs:

In addition, detailed information is needed to determine the kinds of soil used for phytoremediation projects. Water movement, reductive oxygen concentrations, root growth, and root structure all affect the growth of plants and should be considered when implementing phytoremediation.

Performance Data:

The U.S. Air Force used poplar trees to contain a ground water TCE plume. TCE was shown to be degraded in the tissues of the poplar trees. The trees pumped a sufficient amount of water to produce a cone of depression limiting the spread of the TCE plume.

In Iowa, EPA demonstrated the usage of phytoremediation by planting poplar trees along a stream bank between a corn field and the stream. These trees acted as natural pumps to keep toxic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers out of the streams and ground water. After three years, while the nitrate concentration in ground water at the edge of the corn field was measured at 150 mg/L, the ground water among the poplar trees along the stream bank had nitrate concentration of only 3 mg/L.

USAEC is also leading the team of experts from EPA, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Waterways Experimental Station (WES) to successfully demonstrate phytoremediation of explosive contaminated sites in Milan Army Ammunition Plant in Milan, TN.


Construction estimates for phytoremediation are $200K/acre and $20K/acre for operations and maintenance.

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