Rice University engineers have figured out how soil contaminated by heavy oil can not only be cleaned but made fertile again.
How do they know it works? They grew lettuce.
Rice engineers Kyriacos Zygourakis and Pedro Alvarez and their colleagues have fine-tuned their method to remove petroleum contaminants from soil through the age-old process of pyrolysis. The technique gently heats soil while keeping oxygen out, which avoids the damage usually done to fertile soil when burning hydrocarbons cause temperature spikes.
While large-volume marine spills get most of the attention, 98 percent of oil spills occur on land, Alvarez points out, with more than 25,000 spills a year reported to the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes the need for cost-effective remediation clear, he said.
“We saw an opportunity to convert a liability, contaminated soil, into a commodity, fertile soil,” Alvarez said.
The key to retaining fertility is to preserve the soil’s essential clays, Zygourakis said. “Clays retain water, and if you raise the temperature too high, you basically destroy them,” he said. “If you exceed 500 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit), dehydration is irreversible.”
The researchers put soil samples from Hearne, Texas, contaminated in the lab with heavy crude, into a kiln to see what temperature best eliminated the most oil, and how long it took.
Their results showed heating samples in the rotating drum at 420 C (788 F) for 15 minutes eliminated 99.9 percent of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) and 94.5 percent of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), leaving the treated soils with roughly the same pollutant levels found in natural, uncontaminated soil.
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