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Your Environment. Your Health.

Final Progress Reports: University of Arizona: Biosurfactant-Enhanced in Situ Metal Remediation

Superfund Research Program

Biosurfactant-Enhanced in Situ Metal Remediation

Project Leader: Raina M. Maier
Grant Number: P42ES004940
Funding Period: 1995-2010

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Final Progress Reports

Year:   2004  1999 

Over the duration of this five year project, Dr. Maier’s laboratory has demonstrated that biosurfactants can be used to remove metals from contaminated soil and sewage sludge.  The importance of this discovery is that presently few effective strategies exist for the remediation and restoration of metal-contaminated soil.  The only alternatives available include treatment with more toxic, nonbiodegradable synthetic alternatives like EDTA, or with agents like strong acid that destroy the integrity of the soil system being treated.  In 2004 Dr. Maier reported the discovery of a new biosurfactant that was named a “flavolipid”.  The importance of this discovery is that biosurfactants are useful not only for remediation, but also as additives used in a wide variety of industries.  This type of discovery is significant from several perspectives.  First, biosurfactants are of biological origin and so their environmental compatibility (they are biodegradable and have low toxicity) is much higher than many of their synthetic counterparts.  Second, biological systems can create novel molecules never conceived of by human chemists with attendant unique and interesting properties.  Thus, these types of discoveries can lead to the development of industrial processes and products that result in lower levels of pollution.  As an example of this, in September 2004, Jeneil Biosurfactant Co. licensed the investigator’s University of Arizona patent for use of a biosurfactant called rhamnolipid as a biological control agent.  This biosurfactant can potentially replace a much more toxic pesticide for use on vegetables and ornamental plants.  As a result of this collaborative work with rhamnolipid, Jeneil has subsequently been awarded the 2004 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.  This work was also lauded by Scientific American as one of the top 50 technology breakthroughs in 2004.  Although this research was focused on the basic science of biosurfactants and metals interactions and not on biological control, the knowledge gained from this work led directly to the investigator’s discovery and patent, a wonderful illustration of the ripple effect that basic research can have.

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