12:31 PM

Mohawk Profs tackle brownfield remediation

Mohawk Profs are tackling brownfield remediation with bacteria in funded applied research project.

By Tiffany Mayer

Brownfield cleanup is usually the domain of backhoes, bulldozers and dump trucks — big equipment hired to dig up contaminated earth and dump it somewhere else.

But Athanasios Paschos is studying whether tiny bacteria can do the heavy lifting in cleaning up old industrial sites instead.

It’s a field of study called bioremediation and thanks to a Mohawk College Applied Research and Innovation in Education (ARIE) grant, the biotechnology professor is working to isolate beneficial microbes that can break down organic pollutants in the environment.

“They’re organisms are specialized in using these pollutants,” Paschos said. “They naturally occur in the environment. We enrich them and put them back in the environment.”

Paschos’s research is part of an effort to grow brownfield remediation applied research at Mohawk College. Chemical engineering professors Chris McCrory and Greg Matzke are also part of the effort with McCrory taking the lead on testing soil samples to determine the pollutants at a site, and Matzke contributing GIS mapping of brownfields to understand the scope of contamination.

Using beneficial bacteria might be a cheaper of method for cleaning industrial sites than the commonly used scoop and dump technique of unearthing polluted soil and dumping it elsewhere, Paschos explained.

“We’re hoping with our technique, we won’t have to remove soil.”

Measures will be taken to ensure none of the bacteria currently being tested in Paschos's Mohawk lab cause more harm than good. DNA analysis will be done for all bacteria that show cleanup potential to ensure nothing pathogenic is ever bred and released into the environment.

Once Paschos has found the perfect candidates for cleanup jobs, he can grow large populations in bioreactors on campus. Those populations can then be dispersed over sizeable areas of pollutants where they’ll consume contaminants as an energy source, similar to how micro-organisms aided in the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 and again in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The ARIE grant has also enabled Paschos to hire two students, Himanshu Domadiya and Surur Kubba, to help him in the lab.

The team’s work has been showcased at local scientific conferences. It’s also setting up his protégés for success when they graduate.

“In the course material, we study and we do labs but when we go into the industry, it’s a different environment,” Domadiya explained. “So if we spend more time in the lab, at least we know the basics of how to run the instruments.”

The team’s focus is on removing organic pollutants from the environment, such as oil, household cleaners, even dry cleaning chemicals. But Paschos hopes to one day find a bacterial foil for heavy metals.

“Many manufacturing facilities contain heavy metals, particularly here in Hamilton with the steel industry,” he said.

His team is also exploring the possibility of using fungus and plants in bioremediation.

Still, there are hurdles to bioremediation, namely Canadian weather. It’s too cold in most regions for beneficial bacteria to perform their cleaning activity during winter, so their use in cleanups is limited to spring and summer. Paschos and his team are looking at ways to bypass those constraints.

“In biotechnology, we like to show that microbes have more beneficial uses than negative ones,” he said.

Tiffany Mayer is a freelance writer based in Niagara. She’s writing a series of articles about applied research and innovation at Mohawk College.

For more information about this and other ARIE projects, contact iDeaWORKS at ideaworks@mohawkcollege.ca