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Cleaning up contaminated water - with trees and compost

23 November 2006

Scientists at a meeting today (23 November) will explain how poplar trees can be used to remove contaminants from groundwater and how compost can clean-up acidic mine water. Progress on these projects that use plants and microbes to clean-up contaminated sites will be presented along with other projects at a dissemination meeting for the £5M Bioremediation LINK Programme.

Cleaning up acidic mine water with compost-based bioreactors

Scientists have studied how acid, sulphate, iron and heavy metals in mine water can be neutralised using systems based on compost. They have characterised the microorganisms involved and have now developed engineering design concepts for new treatment systems. The project is led by the University of Wales, Bangor, and Newcastle University.

“1,800 km of watercourses in England and Wales are at risk from mine water pollution,” said Professor Andrew Aplin from Newcastle University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences. “Working at three sites in northeast England and one in Fife, we have shown that even heavily contaminated mine water can be effectively treated with this approach.”

Clean groundwater with poplars and bacteria

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is one of the most prevalent groundwater contaminants, and is widely used as a metal degreaser, dry cleaning agent and household cleaning solvent. The physical characteristics of TCE make it difficult to remove from the groundwater using traditional technologies. Scientists from the University of Glasgow have shown that poplar trees can remove TCE from the water table.

The team is now investigating ways to break down TCE with bacteria using natural plant extracts.

“Natural plant extracts give soil bacteria an appetite for environmental pollutants,” said Dr Susan Rosser from the University of Glasgow. “When the bacteria are fed small amounts of the plant extracts as a starter they eat the pollutants as a main course.”

The Bioremediation LINK Programme was established in April 2001 to support the development of technologies necessary for commercial use of biotechnology in cleaning up contaminated land, air and water. With the programme now 5 years old, projects it has funded are producing tangible results. The projects using compost to clean-up mine water and poplars to remove TCE from groundwater are being presented alongside the other 10 projects at a scientific meeting in London.

“Plants and microorganisms are well suited to deal with unusual compounds or environmental conditions,” said Professor Nigel Brown, Director of Science and Technology at BBSRC. “The excellent science in the Bioremediation LINK Programme has exploited these mechanisms to help improve the environment and reduce pollution.”

In 2000 BBSRC commissioned a project to investigate attitudes of stakeholder groups to new bioremediation technologies. The study recommended a risk assessment of the technologies before implementation and use of non-GM methods where possible.


Notes to editors

The projects funded by the Bioremediation LINK Programme are:

  • Bioremediation of acidic mine waters by sulphate reduction in novel, compost-based field-scale bioreactors
  • In-situ bioremediation of cyanide, PAHs and hetrocyclic compounds using engineered sequenced reactive barrier techniques
  • Phytoremediation of Arable Sludged Soils
  • Field scale evaluation of a hybrid bioremediation and phytoremediation process for the treatment of hydrocarbon contaminated soil
  • An integrated strategy for monitoring natural attenuation using chemical fingerprinting and molecular analysis
  • Development of strategies to enhance the population diversity within conventional activated sludge reactors (CASR) and Membrane Bio-Reactors (MBR) and their influence on the functional capacity of biomass
  • Optimising Biopile Processes for Weathered Hydrocarbons Within a Risk Management Framework
  • Comparative Assessment of Approaches for predicting the Fate and Transport of Dissolved Phase Hydrocarbons in Chalk Aquifers - Phase 1
  • In-situ source zone bioremediation
  • Further validation of a soil test to predict soil-associated pollutant bioavailability
  • Novel technologies for enhancing phytoremediation of TCE
  • The use of chemical means to assess soil associated contaminant bioavailability

The 12 Bioremediation LINK Programme projects have received around £5M of funding towards total project costs of almost £10M. Projects will continue to run until autumn 2008.

Core sponsors are the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI), the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Environment Agency (EA). The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) contribute on a project-by-project basis.

About DTI

The Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) is working to create the conditions for business  success and help the UK respond to the challenge of globalisation. The Technology Programme, launched in 2004, is investing directly in new and emerging technologies, and has been designed to help businesses work collaboratively with each other or with academic partners to develop technologies that will underpin products and services of the future. To date the Technology Programme has allocated over £430m Government funding to collaborative R&D competitions, awarding grants ranging from £30,000 to £2.2 million. The Technology Programme provides funding using two of the DTI's business support products: Collaborative Research & Development and Knowledge Transfer Networks.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.


The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC is investing £650 million this year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. Website address for more information on EPSRC:

External contact

Professor Andrew Aplin, Newcastle University

tel: 01912 464870

Dr Susan Rosser, University of Glasgow


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382