A recent article posted by the University of British Columbia highlights the research being conducted by Vikram Yadav, a chemical engineering assistant professor, who is using micro-organisms as solutions to challenging problems.
Yadav’s latest target is cleaning up oil sands tailings ponds.
“Imagine these deep, manmade lakes, spanning hundreds of square kilometers and full of silt, sand, bitumen, trace metals and chemicals,” says Yadav. “You can filter out the solids, but there’s currently no good solution for removing the toxins – particularly naphthenic acids, a family of chemicals that is especially toxic.”
Searching for bacterial strains that grow in polluted environments, his team has identified one species that “thrived in this type of environment by eating naphthenic acids.”
“Just as you can engineer bugs to manufacture materials, you can also engineer them to break things down,” he said. “It was simply a matter of finding the strains that were the most efficient at removing the toxin, and then modifying them to work at a faster rate.”
The article says that once most of the naphthenic acids are broken down and the other contaminants have been removed, the water can be recovered and discharged into the environment.
“Over time, nature will do the rest and the pond can be reclaimed, possibly becoming a habitat for wildlife in the region,” said Yadav.
The team has found six strains of the bacteria, and they still need to be vetted in the field. They are working with an industrial partner to set up a pilot test in the Athabasca oil sands, home to 19 tailings ponds, sometime this year.