Life, Death, Soil Contaminants, and You

We as humans are naturally destructive of things around us. It started as innocent as children destroying Lego forts, to as harmful as an oil spill. Throughout history we as humans have destroyed forests, ecosystems, wildlife, and even ourselves. Some people claim that it is just inherent nature, and we are on an unmovable track to our own demise.

We as a human race have slowly began to right our wrongs, through the use of greener and more sustainable way of living. We have invented and discovered ways to use the natural power of our own earth to replenish and clean some of our carbon footprints. Some of the fields leading engineers, biologists, botanists and many others have been working on a process called bioremediation to aid in a greener tomorrow. This process uses natural accruing plant life to aid in cleaning up our mistakes as a civilization. This process is intended to be a solution to many issues such as oil spills, sterilizing drinking water, and wastewater cleaning. With all new technologies the growth is exponential, and there are very few regulatory caps on the technology. To ensure a safe and efficient use of this new technology there should be standards set to control companies and their technology. In order to understand such policies, it is helpful to have a simplistic view of what bioremediation really is.

What is “Bio Remediation”

The EPA explains bioremediation as “ the use of microbes to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater”. Microbes can be any form of living organism that is naturally accruing in our environment. Some such microbes are algae, bacteria, and even full size plant life. These microbes crave certain substances and cause them to stimulate their own growth around such substances.

They use the contaminated soil or even water as energy and food to expedite their growth process. The waste product of most of the microbes is either water or a non-toxic gas such as CO2 and methane. In most cases the natural count of microbes in contaminated soil or groundwater is not dense enough to promote bioremediation, so process of Bio augmentation is implemented. This process introduces more non-invasive microbes to the site to ensure proper remediation and clean up. In some cases the contaminated location is not easily permissible for bio remediation. This could be caused by the ambient temperature, nutrients and food(contaminates) not being present at the contaminated zone. The simplest fix for the lack of nutrients in the contaminated zone is to add artificial nutrients to the zone. These artificial nutrients are called “Amendments”, and are harmless and are found in most of our cupboards at home. These nutrients can be as simple as vegetable oil and molasses, to as complicated as water and oxygen pellets. The EPA shows this process with a simple diagram listed below.

Without these “Amendments” the process of remediation would fail. “If conditions are not right, microbes grow too slowly or die, and contaminants are not cleaned up.” These “Amendments” are often pumped into the contaminated zone underground through groundwater or wells to treat ground water/soil “In-Situ”.

Sometimes remediation cannot take place at the original contamination zone. To combat this reality the process of “Ex-Situ” remediation was coined. Many times this process is done when the microbes cannot handle the natural environment where the contaminated zone is or the ground is too dense for the process to take place. This process takes the contaminated zone and moves it to a storage vat or on pads above the surface.

Pros of Bio Remediation

The process of bio remediation is the best green process of reclaiming contaminated soil discovered to date. The process is completely green except for the small carbon footprint of vehicles and possible transportation of vats if the process is Ex-Situ”. Remediation has been used to clean up oil spills in the gulf, as well as minor spills around oil wells and fracking locations. The EPA states its pros as so…

“Bioremediation has the advantage of using natural processes to clean up sites. Because it may not require as much equipment, labor, or energy as some cleanup methods, it can be cheaper. Another advantage is that contaminated soil and groundwater are treated onsite without having to dig, pump, and transport them elsewhere for treatment. Because microbes change the harmful chemicals into small amounts of water and gases, few if any waste byproducts are created. Bioremediation has successfully cleaned up many polluted sites and has been selected or is being used at over 100 Superfund sites across the country.”

Cons of Bio Remediation

Even though Bio remediation has a green impact on environmental disasters the process is still not perfected. One of the major problems is that the process of bioremediation is slow. The time required to clean up contaminates can take months up to a few years based on the spread of contaminates and the permeability of the soil/water. Most contaminated sits involve materials that have heavy metals in their composition. Bio Remediation struggles with removing certain metals such as lead and arsenic wastes. Some times heavy metals are not removed at all.

For “In-Situ” bioremediation site must have soil with high permeability. This can easily be dismissed with the use of “Ex-Situ”, but the costs then increase as well as the carbon footprint of the process. It does not remove all quantities of contaminants. There are also issues with companies and the proper use of remediation. There is so far not a single policy placed that controls the outcome of Bio Remediation companies. This causes Substantial gaps in the understanding of microbial ecology, physiology and genetic expression and site expression and site engineering. A stronger scientific base is required for rational designing of process and success.

What Form of Patent Policy should be implemented?

With the ever emerging bio remediation process styles, many companies have started to patent their processes. Many companies have also patented certain microbes as their own. This fact is the reason why their needs to be policy placed on what can be patented.

“Patent analysis of bioremediation could assist the scientists, stakeholders (technologists, business leaders, attorneys, etc.), policy planners and researchers to access technology updates, develop new process and product, plan future research strategies and take key decisions for developing R&D investment plans for more economic and environmental gain. Earlier workers also measured environmentally motivated innovations, such as pollution control technologies and green energy technologies, and for general purpose technologies with environmental benefits. Since, patents are the best measure of innovative activities, therefore the objectives of present study were
(i) to analyze overall patent activity in the field of bioremediation,
(ii) to assess global distribution of bioremediation patents, their patenting trend over time and assignees,
(iii) to identify potential areas for future research and development in bioremediation technologies.”

Final Thoughts

Policy is a mandatory element of any emerging technological advance. As shown with the technological leaps in bio remediation, the need for policy is inherently evident. Through patent policy, companies can maintain their scientific work without fear of industrial espionage, and government control. On that some side patent policy keeps the government in control of taxing and other regulatory issues. Along with patent policy the need for policies put in place for future advancement is needed. These future policies would help keep the companies from manipulation and fraudulent use of their data. The future of green is bright, and through proper policy placement it can stay that way.


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