By Sanya Sahi, Environmental Health & Safety Research Analyst, Frost & Sullivan
According to several recent studies, the overall market size in the United States for contaminated site remediation falls between $7-8 billion annually. The demand for these services is mainly driven by government entities such as the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Superfund site projects and underground storage tank regulations. Although there are several innovative technologies available one of the fastest growing areas is likely bioremediation.
Bioremediation is a versatile treatment process that accelerates the biological clean-up process undertaken by naturally occurring microorganisms (yeast, fungi, or bacteria) to break down hazardous substances into less toxic or nontoxic substances. Microorganisms eat and digest organic substances for nutrients and energy. Certain microorganisms can digest organic substances such as fuels or solvents that are hazardous to humans. The microorganisms break down the organic contaminants into harmless products -- mainly carbon dioxide and water.
Biological remediation tends to be a relatively inexpensive option because it is employed as an in situ method and does not require significant labor costs or energy inputs. According to the EPA, biodegradation is useful for many types of organic wastes and is a cost-effective, natural process. Many techniques can be conducted on-site, eliminating the need to transport hazardous materials. The applications for biodegradation heavily depend on the toxicity and initial concentrations of the contaminants, their biodegradability, the properties of the contaminated soil, and the particular treatment system selected. Contaminants targeted for biodegradation treatment are non-halogenated volatile and semi-volatile organics and fuels. The effectiveness of bioremediation is limited at sites with high concentrations of metals, highly chlorinated organics, or inorganic salts because these compounds are toxic to the microorganisms. A standard application for bioremediation is the clean-up of petroleum hydrocarbons. Biological remediaton is also useful in the treatment of mineral oil and aromatics.
The biological treatment market is made up of several smaller firms that employ less than 50 people. Although there has been significant consolidation in the remediation services industry overall, manufacturers of bioremediation technology tend to be somewhat fragmented having entered the market with specific biological expertise. Since it has become essential for larger engineering and consulting firms to provide a diversified product line, bioremediation has become a part of their offerings as well.
With the significant growth of the US bioremediation market, and the European bioremediation market estimated at $119 million in 2003 -it is clear that there has been a greater acceptance by end-users and regulators for these technologies as their advantages become understood. As biological treatment is one of the less expensive technologies, because it is generally in situ and involves little or no energy input, it is expected to become more popular as time progresses. Prices are subsequently expected to become even more competitive with other technologies, thus making the price of bioremediation one of one of the largest drivers for the technology.
Additionally, there are several organizations and government entities furthering the research of this technology, trying to make it more appealing to end-users. For example, the DOE does a great deal of bioremediation research with the natural and accelerated bioremediation program (NABIR). In 2000 the budget for this well-coordinated, comprehensive research program was $25 million. With the DOE's efforts in furthering quality research- bioremediation scientists are searching for cost-effective technologies to improve current remediation methods to clean up DOE's contaminated sites.
This research will continue in 2001 and into the future, leading to new discoveries for reliable methods of bioremediation of metals and radionuclides as well as organic pollutants in soils and groundwater. The NABIR program is unique in that it supports the basic research that is needed to understand this technology to more reliably develop the practical applications for cost-effective cleanup of pollutants at DOE sites. With this initiative by the DOE and the increasing acceptance of these technologies, bioremediation is likely to have a promising future in the US and all around the world.