The use of radiorespirometry for evaluation of subsurface biodegradation

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Current use of alcohols as neat automotive fuels or as inexpensive octane enhancers in gasoline-alcohol blends, in addition to their uses as solvents and starting materials in manufacturing, have created a concern due to the increased potential for groundwater contamination. Adsorption and water solubility are primarily responsible for separating gasoline-alcohol blend components in soils and would allow alcohols to move ahead of the remaining gasoline components (e.g., benzene). The presence of alcohols would be difficult to detect, and levels hazardous to humans or animals could be reached readily.

The primary objective of this study was to investigate the use of a ¹⁴C-tracer technique for evaluation of subsurface biodegradation of groundwater contaminants. A modification of the heterotrophic activity assay, the radiorespirometric method, was employed as the ¹⁴C-tracer technique. The microorganisms used were those present in soil sampled aseptically at locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Both saturated and unsaturated zone soils were used. The alcohols used were methanol and tertiary-butanol.

Methanol was easily degraded under both aerobic and anoxic conditions up to approximately 3000 mg/L. Tertiary-butanol was degraded very slowly under both aerobic and anoxic/anaerobic conditions, and an inhibitory concentration was not readily apparent. Tertiary-butanol was degraded at rates approximately 10² slower than methano1. The data generated in this study compare favorably with data obtained by oxygen-uptake and static-microcosm methodologies.