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J Contam Hydrol. 2009 Jan 26;103(3-4):119-33. doi: 10.1016/j.jconhyd.2008.09.022. Epub 2008 Oct 17.

Biodegradation potential of MTBE in a fractured chalk aquifer under aerobic conditions in long-term uncontaminated and contaminated aquifer microcosms.

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  • 1Groundwater Protection and Restoration Group, Kroto Research Institute, North Campus, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S3 7HQ, UK.

Abstract

The potential for aerobic biodegradation of MTBE in a fractured chalk aquifer is assessed in microcosm experiments over 450 days, under in situ conditions for a groundwater temperature of 10 degrees C, MTBE concentration between 0.1 and 1.0 mg/L and dissolved O2 concentration between 2 and 10 mg/L. Following a lag period of up to 120 days, MTBE was biodegraded in uncontaminated aquifer microcosms at concentrations up to 1.2 mg/L, demonstrating that the aquifer has an intrinsic potential to biodegrade MTBE aerobically. The MTBE biodegradation rate increased three-fold from a mean of 6.6+/-1.6 microg/L/day in uncontaminated aquifer microcosms for subsequent additions of MTBE, suggesting an increasing biodegradation capability, due to microbial cell growth and increased biomass after repeated exposure to MTBE. In contaminated aquifer microcosms which also contained TAME, MTBE biodegradation occurred after a shorter lag of 15 or 33 days and MTBE biodegradation rates were higher (max. 27.5 microg/L/day), probably resulting from an acclimated microbial population due to previous exposure to MTBE in situ. The initial MTBE concentration did not affect the lag period but the biodegradation rate increased with the initial MTBE concentration, indicating that there was no inhibition of MTBE biodegradation related to MTBE concentration up to 1.2 mg/L. No minimum substrate concentration for MTBE biodegradation was observed, indicating that in the presence of dissolved O2 (and absence of inhibitory factors) MTBE biodegradation would occur in the aquifer at MTBE concentrations (ca. 0.1 mg/L) found at the front of the ether oxygenate plume. MTBE biodegradation occurred with concomitant O2 consumption but no other electron acceptor utilisation, indicating biodegradation by aerobic processes only. However, O2 consumption was less than the stoichiometric requirement for complete MTBE mineralization, suggesting that only partial biodegradation of MTBE to intermediate organic metabolites occurred. The availability of dissolved O2 did not affect MTBE biodegradation significantly, with similar MTBE biodegradation behaviour and rates down to ca. 0.7 mg/L dissolved O2 concentration. The results indicate that aerobic MTBE biodegradation could be significant in the plume fringe, during mixing of the contaminant plume and uncontaminated groundwater and that, relative to the plume migration, aerobic biodegradation is important for MTBE attenuation. Moreover, should the groundwater dissolved O2 concentration fall to zero such that MTBE biodegradation was inhibited, an engineered approach to enhance in situ bioremediation could supply O2 at relatively low levels (e.g. 2-3 mg/L) to effectively stimulate MTBE biodegradation, which has significant practical advantages. The study shows that aerobic MTBE biodegradation can occur at environmentally significant rates in this aquifer, and that long-term microcosm experiments (100s days) may be necessary to correctly interpret contaminant biodegradation potential in aquifers to support site management decisions.

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