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Can India's bioremediation process contain BP oil spill?
Indian Energy and environment think-tank The Energy and Research Institute (TERI) holds the patent for Oilzapper formulation to clean up an oil slick using bacteria using a process called bioremediation.
Oilzapper is a bio-friendly homegrown cocktail of bacteria used to reclaim vast areas of agricultural land polluted by leaking crude from pipelines or oily sludge (a hazardous hydrocarbon waste generated by oil refineries) coming from other connections.
'Bio' refers to living and 'remediate' means to fix or cure. It is a branch of biotechnology that makes use of living organisms to reduce or eliminate environmental hazards resulting from accumulation of toxic chemicals, or hazardous waste. Oilzapper detoxifies oily sludges and cleans up oil slicks.
The Indian formulation of Oilzapper is a unique cocktail of five different bacterial strains that are immobilized and mixed with a carrier material (powdered corncob) that is allowed to feed on hydrocarbon compounds present in crude oil and oily sludge, which is then converted into harmless carbon di-oxide and water.
The Indian formulation eats up all four layers of crude -- waxy element or saturated hydrocarbons, aromatic component or benzene compounds, NSO (compounds of nitrogen and sulphur) and asphaltene or tar. Unlike other formulations, Oilzapper can work in temperatures ranging from 8 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius.
Oilzapper, which is neatly packed into sterile polythene bags and sealed aseptically for safe transport, is like powder and is sprayed on an oil pool or contaminated soil just like a fertilizer. It takes 3-4 months for the bacteria to eat up the oil. The shelf life of the product is three months. ONGC markets the formulation.
Oilzapper, the brainchild of scientist Banwari Lal and head of joint venture between TERI and state-run ONGC says they have succeeded in creating a cocktail of four bacteria that do not fight with one another but each feeds on only one layer of crude content, which is 40 percent cheaper than other options, Indian daily The Times of India reported.
Oilzapper has reclaimed over 20 lakh tonnes of soil in Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Assam where major Indian companies such as Reliance Industries, BG (formerly British Gas), Cairn and Tata Power besides a host of state-run oil firms have refineries, storage facilities or pipelines.
The soil is then tested by an independent laboratory identified by the Central Pollution Control Board of India before it is declared safe.
More than 5,000 hectares of farmland contaminated with crude oil spills has already been reclaimed in different parts of India and more than 26,000 tonnes of oily sludge successfully treated with Oilzapper. Many oil-slick contaminated lakes in the north-eastern parts of India have also been cleaned up in two years.
It is estimated that about 20,000 tonnes of petroleum sludge is generated every year from the 16 Indian refineries. At present, refineries have to construct polymer-lined pits with a special leachate collection system to prevent the dumped sludge from leaking into the earth and groundwater.
A pit costs about 10 million rupees and each refinery needs several such pits. With space being a constraint given that more and more refineries being set up, a pit gets filled up in three to four years whereas with Oilzapper, one just needs 200 tonnes of environment-friendly bacteria to clean up 20,000 tonnes of oily waste, TERI said on its site.
When an oil spill occurs at sea, oil floats above water since it is lighter. It therefore catches fire swiftly, endangering the ecosystem for all times. Oil spills on land (due to leakage from pipelines, pilferage, etc.) too cause fire hazards and pollute groundwater and air.
With Oilzapper, a contamination of 20 percent (200 grams per kilogram of oil) can be taken care of in two months.
The product is a blessing for the oil exploration and production sites and oil refineries. It has proven particularly relevant in the wake of the ever increasing movement of oil across land and water, the many oil-transport related accidents in the past and oil waste management issues at the refineries, TERI said.
It is still not known why this method was not employed or even thought about ever since the massive BP oil spill was reported three months ago.