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The Process of Microbial Bioremediation For Hydrocarbons

Oil spills have devastated marine habitats throughout the years. This type of pollution dumps about 49 million gallons of waste oil into our oceans each year. The rapid growth of the petrochemical industry in the last thirty years has added to the increase of toxic waste matter going into our waterways.  As a result, regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Environmental protection Agency (EPA) are paying closer attention to problems of environmental contamination. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the social, political, environmental and regulatory pressure of eradicating toxic spills incidents. The recent BP oil spill, plus past oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, have further drawn attention to the urgency to come up with effective ways to clean up our waters.

Nature has its own way of cleaning up an oil spill. The intertidal zone, or the area that is exposed to the air at low tide and underwater at high tide, is already brimming with hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms that naturally break down oil. Yet their effectiveness is limited by the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus available. In order to address this limitation, nitrogen-based fertilizers are added to the environment in order to stimulate the growth of indigenous hydrocarbon-degrading microorganisms. Using microorganisms, or microbes, in the cleanup of oil spills is known as bioremediation. This idea is one of the most effective and environmentally safe cleanup responses to oil spills.

Bioremediation is the process that uses microorganisms, fungi, green plants or their enzymes to lessen environmental contamination or make it less toxic. For hydrocarbons, cultured bacterium that were optimized are applied to feed on these specific contaminants. These microbes are first cultured in the presence of sugar or another standard feedstuff and combined with a small amount of the pollutant material. Consecutive groups of microbes are fed an increasing proportion of the pollutant until their growth is ready for digestion of that compound rather than the sugar. These microbes are then applied to the contamination site or spill in large controlled volumes. These microbes digest their way through the pollutant material, multiplying and digesting until no pollutant remains. What are left behind are non-toxic carbon dioxide, water and mineralized matter. This process takes several weeks, but the oil will not spread further, and at the end of the process, the oil is gone.

Companies have invested in developing products that uses this organic technology. These products are called enzymes. Enzymes are the catalysts of microbes. They speed up the bioremediation process without being used up in the reaction. There are a number of products on the market that can efficiently remediate hydrocarbons. Microbial remediation enzymes are non-corrosive, non-toxic and non-polluting. They absorb hydrocarbons on contact and leave the surface dry. They are not just ideal for large oil spills, but can be used for clean up of soil, asphalt, concrete, wood, metal, and equipment that has come into contact with oil, gasoline and grease.

Microbial bioremediation is a proven alternative treatment for any hydrocarbon contamination. The benefits of applying this method for oil spill response are numerous. It eliminates hydrocarbon contaminates in many environments with better speed and thoroughness, compared to traditional oil cleanup methods at a significantly lower cost. And since microbial remediation is portable, contaminants can be treated on the spot or can be removed and treated elsewhere. This method only requires a low energy input, is environmentally safe, self-sustaining, and does not generate waste. Bioremediation should be considered as an environmentally and economically advantageous option for any site where hydrocarbon based remediation is required.

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