Using microbes for the quick clean up of dirty oil

Sep 08, 2009

Microbiologists from the University of Essex, UK have used microbes to break down and remove toxic compounds from crude oil and tar sands. These acidic compounds persist in the environment, taking up to 10 years to break down. Mr Richard Johnson, presenting his PhD research to the Society for General Microbiology's meeting at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, described how, by using mixed consortia of bacteria, they have achieved complete degradation of specific compounds in only a few days.

Tar sand deposits contain the world's largest supply of oil. With dwindling supplies of high quality light , oil producers are looking towards alternative oil supplies such as heavy crude oils and super heavy crudes like tar sands. However, the process of oil extraction and subsequent refining produces high concentrations of toxic by-products. The most toxic of these are a mixture of compounds known as naphthenic acids that are resistant to breakdown and persist as pollutants in the water used to extract the oils and tar. This water is contained in large settling or tailing ponds. The number and size of these settling ponds containing lethal amounts of naphthenic acids are growing daily - it is estimated that there is around one billion m3 of contaminated water in Athabasca, Canada, alone - and is still increasing. The safe exploitation of tar sand deposits depends on finding methods to clean up these pollutants.

"The chemical structures of the naphthenic acids we tested varied," said Mr Johnson, "Some had more side branches in their structure than others. The microbes could completely break down the varieties with few branches very quickly; however, other more complex naphthenic acids did not break down completely, with the breakdown products still present. We are now piecing together the degradation pathways involved which will allow us to develop more effective bioremediation approaches for removing naphthenic acids from the environment."

Source: Society for General Microbiology

Explore further: Brand new technology detects probiotic organisms in food

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New insights into costly destruction of subsurface petroleum

Sep 25, 2006

Scientists are reporting an advance toward understanding and possibly combating a natural process that destroys billions of dollars worth of subsurface petroleum. Called biodegradation, it occurs as bacteria and other microbes ...

New bacteria discovered in tar pits

May 17, 2007

U.S. environmental scientists have discovered the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles contain hundreds of new species of unusual bacteria.

Making gas out of crude oil

Dec 12, 2007

An international team that includes University of Calgary scientists has shown how crude oil in oil deposits around the world – including in Alberta’s oil sands – are naturally broken down by microbes in the reservoir.

Recommended for you

Brand new technology detects probiotic organisms in food

41 minutes ago

In the food industr, ity is very important to ensure the quality and safety of products consumed by the population to improve their properties and reduce foodborne illness. Therefore, a team of Mexican researchers ...

Protein evolution follows a modular principle

1 hour ago

Proteins impart shape and stability to cells, drive metabolic processes and transmit signals. To perform these manifold tasks, they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. Scientists at the Max Planck ...

Report on viruses looks beyond disease

19 hours ago

In contrast to their negative reputation as disease causing agents, some viruses can perform crucial biological and evolutionary functions that help to shape the world we live in today, according to a new report by the American ...

User comments : 0