Soil scientist Derek Peak
Soil scientist Derek Peak

U of S-led project will use biowaste technology to clean up polluted soil

University of Saskatchewan soil researchers have been awarded $750,000 in federal funding to develop a next-generation method of removing spilled petroleum pollutants within the soil at former gas stations by using converted biowaste from cattle processing plants.

Soil scientists Derek Peak and Steven Siciliano and Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) professor Paolo Mussone will work with industry partners Federated Cooperatives Limited (FCL) and United Farmers of Alberta Co-operative Limited (UFA) to develop and test new soil additives that can trap and remove petroleum hydrocarbons for easier digestion by soil-based organisms.

“We’re developing new phosphorous-rich materials to help bacteria and fungi in the ground consume hydrocarbon pollutants,” said Peak, the lead investigator. “These materials will enable us to treat contaminated soil right at the site rather than excavating the soil to process it. This could cut remediation costs in half.”

With more than 30,000 contaminated gas station sites in Canada, halving remediation costs represents a total potential savings of approximately $7.5 billion.

The project is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) through its College-University Idea to Innovation (CU-I2I) grant. This funding category supports development of promising technology from academia and promotes its transfer to industry. FCL and UFA are jointly providing an additional $75,000 cash and $337,500 in-kind contribution. 

“This exciting partnership will leverage university, college and industrial expertise to create sustainable solutions for managing environmental impacts,” said U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “It will also train young student innovators in the use of cutting-edge research tools for the new clean tech economy.”

The funding will support three years of research to make new compounds at NAIT, evaluate them at U of S laboratories and the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, and then pilot-test the soil additives at two sites in Stony Plain, Alta. 

In a system akin to a giant pressure cooker, using relatively little energy and in only a few hours, waste materials from a cattle processing plant are converted into a water-based, nutrient-rich material which can be injected into the soil to aid bacteria and fungi in breaking down petrochemicals.

“Remedial approaches have real and measurable sustainability benefits over traditional excavation-based approaches,” said Kris Bradshaw, FCL’s impacted sites manager, whose team currently manages more than 1,000 impacted sites. “This research will ultimately help us and others manage the vast array of impacted sites in Canada and around the world.”

The innovative project will also create a training partnership program between the U of S and NAIT: two U of S PhD students will serve as mentors to NAIT students and U of S students will have the opportunity to work with highly specialized tools at NAIT.

“Through our participation with SIRCA (Sustainable In-Situ Remediation Co-operative Alliance), UFA is excited to work with other industry cooperatives, the academic community and the government,” said Sherry Johnston, UFA’s vice-president of integrated services. “We support research that will improve remediation processes and help us implement more innovative, sustainable solutions for the sites across our network.”

Researchers from the U of S were awarded two previous NSERC CU-I2I grants, partnering with Yukon College in 2012 and Saskatchewan Polytechnic in 2013.
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