Multiscale investigation of bacterial attachment for bioremediating contaminated groundwater

2015-2016 E²SHI Seed Grant

Research Team

Joelle Frechette 
Associate Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, School of Engineering
Contact Dr. Frechette 

Kai Loon Chen
Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, School of Engineering
Zachary Gagnon
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, School of Engineering
German Drazer
Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Rutgers University

Chlorinated ethylenes are among the most common and pervasive groundwater contaminants in the United States. The chlorinated ethylenes are produced in large quantities and they are widely used in industry including food packaging, synthetic fibers, and industrial solvents. Because chlorinated ethylenes are barely soluble in water, they can accumulate in groundwater and emerge in water supplies, posing serious carcinogenic and neurological risks to human health.

A potential solution to remove the chlorinated ethylenes is in situ, or on site, bioremediation (ISB). ISB is an appealing technology that encourages natural bacteria to grow and produce to remove harmful organic elements, such as chlorinated ethylenes, through the process of biological degradation. ISB occurs when the oil-based chlorinated ethylenes and water come into contact and the biodegrading bacteria are attached to the oil-water interface, absorbing and digesting the harmful oils. The ISB process becomes very effective if the biodegrading bacteria emulsifies on the oil-water interface. Emulsifying helps to the mix oil and water, which are typically unmixable. Currently, the mechanisms for emulsification in ISB are poorly understood.

Doctors Frechette, Chen, and Gagnon hope to better understand how the biodegrading bacteria adhere to the oil-water interface and how emulsification can promote the biodegradation process. The team also hopes that their data will be used for a wide range of applications beyond treating contaminated groundwater, such as remediating oil spills in oceans.


What is in situ bioremediation (ISB)?

Groundwater in Florida. Photo credit: USGS. 

When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.
— John Muir