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Bioremediation is a process used to treat contaminated media, including water, soil and subsurface material, by altering environmental conditions to stimulate growth of microorganisms and degrade the target pollutants. In many cases, bioremediation is less expensive and more sustainable than other remediation alternatives.[1] Biological treatment is a similar approach used to treat wastes including wastewater, industrial waste and solid waste.

Most bioremediation processes involve oxidation-reduction reactions where either an electron acceptor (commonly oxygen) is added to stimulate oxidation of a reduced pollutant (e.g. hydrocarbons) or an electron donor (commonly an organic substrate) is added to reduce oxidized pollutants (nitrate, perchlorate, oxidized metals, chlorinated solvents, explosives and propellants).[2] In both these approaches, additional nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and pH buffers may be added to optimize conditions for the microorganisms. In some cases, specialized microbial cultures are added (bioaugmentation) to further enhance biodegradation. Some examples of bioremediation related technologies are phytoremediation, mycoremediation, bioventing, bioleaching, landfarming, bioreactor, composting, bioaugmentation, rhizofiltration, and biostimulation.


Most bioremediation processes involve oxidation-reduction (Redox) reactions where a chemical species donates an electron (electron donor) to a different species that accepts the electron (electron acceptor). During this process, the electron donor is said to be oxidized while the electron acceptor is reduced. Common electron acceptors in bioremediation processes include oxygen, nitrate, manganese (III and IV), iron (III), sulfate, carbon dioxide and some pollutants (chlorinated solvents, explosives, oxidized metals, and radionuclides). Electron donors include sugars, fats, alcohols, natural organic material, fuel hydrocarbons and a variety of reduced organic pollutants. The redox potential for common biotransformation reactions is shown in the table.

Process Reaction Redox potential (Eh in mV
aerobic O2 + 4e + 4H+ → 2H2O 600 ~ 400
denitrification 2NO3 + 10e + 12H+ → N2 + 6H2O 500 ~ 200
manganese IV reduction MnO2 + 2e + 4H+ → Mn2+ + 2H2O     400 ~ 200
iron III reduction Fe(OH)3 + e + 3H+ → Fe2+ + 3H2O 300 ~ 100
sulfate reduction SO42− + 8e +10 H+ → H2S + 4H2O 0 ~ −150
fermentation 2CH2O → CO2 + CH4 −150 ~ −220


Aerobic bioremediation is the most common form of oxidative bioremediation process where oxygen is provided as the electron acceptor for oxidation of petroleum, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenols, and other reduced pollutants. Oxygen is generally the preferred electron acceptor because of the higher energy yield and because oxygen is required for some enzyme systems to initiate the degradation process. Numerous laboratory and field studies have shown that microorganisms can degrade a wide variety of hydrocarbons, including components of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and jet fuel. Under ideal conditions, the biodegradation rates of the low- to moderate-weight aliphatic, alicyclic, and aromatic compounds can be very high. As the molecular weight of the compound increases, so does the resistance to biodegradation

Common approaches for providing oxygen above the water table include landfarming, composting and bioventing. During landfarming, contaminated soils, sediments, or sludges are incorporated into the soil surface and periodically turned over (tilled) using conventional agricultural equipment to aerate the mixture. Composting accelerates pollutant biodegradation by mixing the waste to be treated with a bulking agent, forming into piles, and periodically mixed to increase oxygen transfer. Bioventing increases oxygen transfer by inducing air flow through the unsaturated zone using a systems of blowers and air injection / extraction wells or using natural variations in barometric pressure to induce air flow.

Approaches for oxygen addition below the water table include recirculating aerated water through the treatment zone, addition of pure oxygen or peroxides, and air sparging. Recirculation systems typically consist of a combination of injection wells or galleries and one or more recovery wells where the extracted groundwater is treated, oxygenated, amended with nutrients and reinjected. However, the amount of oxygen that can be provided by this method is limited by the low solubility of oxygen in water (8 to 10 mg/L for water in equilibrium with air at typical temperatures). Greater amounts of oxygen can be provided by contacting the water with pure oxygen or addition of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) to the water. In some cases, slurries of solid calcium or magnesium peroxide are injected under pressure through soil borings. These solid peroxides react with water releasing H2O2 which then decomposes releasing oxygen. Air sparging involves the injection of air under pressure below the water table. The air injection pressure must be great enough to overcome the hydrostatic pressure of the water and resistance to air flow through the soil.


Anaerobic bioremediation involves the addition of an electron donor to: 1) deplete background electron acceptors including oxygen, nitrate, oxidized iron and manganese and sulfate; and 2) stimulate the biological and/or chemical reduction of the oxidized pollutants. This approach can be employed to treat a broad range of contaminants including chlorinated ethenes. (PCE, TCE, DCE, VC), chlorinated ethanes (TCA, DCA), chloromethanes (CT, CF), chlorinated cyclic hydrocarbons, various energetics (e.g., perchlorate,[3] RDX, TNT), and nitrate. Hexavalent chromium (Cr[VI]) and uranium (U[VI]) can be reduced to less mobile and/or less toxic forms (e.g., Cr[III], U[IV]). Similarly, reduction of sulfate to sulfide (sulfidogenesis) can be used to precipitate certain metals (e.g., zinc, cadmium). The choice of substrate and the method of injection depend on the contaminant type and distribution in the aquifer, hydrogeology, and remediation objectives. Substrate can be added using conventional well installations, by direct-push technology, or by excavation and backfill such as permeable reactive barriers (PRB) or biowalls. Slow-release products composed of edible oils or solid substrates tend to stay in place for an extended treatment period. Soluble substrates or soluble fermentation products of slow-release substrates can potentially migrate via advection and diffusion, providing broader but shorter-lived treatment zones. The added organic substrates are first fermented to hydrogen (H2) and volatile fatty acids (VFAs). The VFAs, including acetate, lactate, propionate and butyrate, provide carbon and energy for bacterial metabolism.


In some cases, nitrogen, phosphorus, micronutrients, vitamins, and other materials are added to improve conditions for microbial respiration.[citation needed]

Many biological processes are sensitive to pH and function most efficiently in near neutral conditions. Low pH can interfere with pH homeostasis or increase the solubility of toxic metals. Microorganisms can expend cellular energy to maintain homeostasis or cytoplasmic conditions may change in response to external changes in pH. Some anaerobes have adapted to low pH conditions through alterations in carbon and electron flow, cellular morphology, membrane structure, and protein synthesis.[4]

See also


  1. ^ "Green Remediation Best Management Practices: Sites with Leaking Underground Storage Tank Systems. EPA 542-F-11-008" (PDF). EPA. June 2011. 
  2. ^ Introduction to In Situ Bioremediation of Groundwater (PDF). US Environmental Protection Agency. 2013. p. 30. 
  3. ^ Coates, J.D.; Jackson, W.A. (2008). "Principles of perchlorate treatment". In Stroo, Hans; Ward, C. Herb. In situ bioremediation of perchlorate in groundwater. New York: Springer. pp. 29–53. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-84921-8_3. ISBN 978-0-387-84921-8. 
  4. ^ Slonczewski, J.L. (2009). "Stress Responses: pH". In Schaechter, Moselio. Encyclopedia of microbiology (3rd ed.). Elsevier. pp. 477–484. doi:10.1016/B978-012373944-5.00100-0. ISBN 978-0-12-373944-5. 

External links

  • Phytoremediation, hosted by the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • To remediate or to not remediate?
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