Bioremediation of Industrial Pollution – Utilizing Fungi, Bacteria, and Plants to Reduce Oil Pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin and the World
Natural resource exploitation affects almost every corner of the earth, and the extraction of crude oil is just one excessive example. However, when the most biodiverse region on Earth is forced to endure irresponsible drilling, the consequences are magnified. The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) is currently on the ground in Ecuador, witnessing this devastation first hand and working towards a solution.
Since the 1960s in the Sucumbios region of Ecuador, multiple oil companies have continued to dump petroleum waste into over one thousand waste pits. These unlined pits are fixed with overflow pipes that discharge toxic effluent into surrounding streams and rivers. One of our intentions with the project is to retrofit these overflow pipes with multi-trophic biofiltration systems. From observing the earth’s efficacy in restoring ecosystems, we’re able to amplify its natural techniques. This is accomplished by harnessing the combined power of fungi, bacteria and plants.
Certain organisms have been discovered to possess effective bioremediation talents. For example, many types of fungi, such as the common oyster mushroom, have the ability to digest petroleum hydrocarbons. The chemical structure of hydrocarbons is similar to lignin, the polymer that gives wood its rigid form. Hence, mushrooms’ affinity for wood can be employed to break down petroleum. By selective exposure to certain chemical components, we can guide their preferences as they grow.
Our current focus is to identify and cultivate native species of Ecuador that can be incorporated into our design. We’ve visited local waste sites to discover specimens that have adapted to grow directly on or around petroleum-contaminated areas, i.e. ‘petrophilic’. Once collected, these species will be reproduced in our jungle laboratory, and then reintroduced as a component of our biofiltration model.
We anticipate creating a system that is modular, scalable and economically-viable for widespread use. To complement our final design, we are developing subsystems which include a solar pasteurizer, biochar stove and hot compost.
Our solar pasteurizer is built out of an old fridge frame, painted black on the outside and lined inside with cardboard and reflective material (i.e. tin foil or an emergency space blanket) for insulation. A large pane of glass is laid over the top to retain heat. We’ll use this to pasteurize our substrates; the food material for our mycelium. When the pasteurizer reaches temperatures above 140°F (60°C), most bacteria that would pose unwanted competition for mycelial growth, are terminated.
A biochar stove uses the process of pyrolysis, the thermal decomposition of organic matter in the absence of oxygen, to produce biochar. The structure of the resulting material is ideal to house microbes that will be favorable in our filtration process. While the biochar stove is running, we take advantage of the expended heat to cook, and to pasteurize or sterilize substrates.
Our compost is comprised of alternating layers of browns, greens and manure, regularly wetted during the layering process. We interlaced branches and palm stalks underneath to ensure aeration of the material. We will use the resulting bacteria from the compost, along with worm castings, to produce a compost tea. This tea will be continually poured over a basin containing the biochar, to create an ideal microbial environment for our biofiltration.
A different challenge arises when we attempt to address heavy metal concentrations contained in crude oil. These elements cannot be digested, but they can be bio-accumulated by various plants and fungi. Once the heavy metals have been absorbed into the organism’s above ground body, this can be removed and safely stored.
Part of what excites us with this project, is the understanding that we are breaking new ground. While laboratory tests have proven the abilities of natural organisms to bioremediate, there have been very few real-world applications of this research. Our volunteers are passionate and dedicated about this work, and hope to continue exploring its possibilities. You can help us bring these possibilities to fruition by donating, volunteering or simply spreading awareness online.
Please take a minute to learn more about our project on our Indiegogo fundraiser page. You are our mycelial network!
A friend from AMP told me recently,"There are three tactics to solving a problem; stopping the problem, educating others about the problem, or creating an alternative method to replace the problem."
By designing, replicating and sharing our system with an open-source approach, we can inspire others to draw from our experience, on a global level. We will primarily disseminate information about the specific problem and our solution, spreading awareness far and fast. Secondly, by perfecting our alternative method, we will make the thoughtless discharge of crude oil into our environment unnecessary. Ultimately, we intend to use this momentum to demonstrate the lasting benefits of our ideas, in order to catalyze change.