NAIT: Real-time monitoring promises to optimize the bioremediation of contaminated soils

Paolo Mussone, Applied Bio/Nanotechnology Industrial Research Chair, NAIT School of Applied Sciences and Technology. Image: NAIT

There are over 30,000 brownfield sites contaminated with hydrocarbon transportation fuels in Canada, most of which are in Alberta.

This is a serious environ mental issue accompanied by steep economic costs to owners and operators who are saddled with expensive insurance liabilities and are unable to repurpose their lands.

Through its members, Saskatchewan’s Federated Cooperatives Limited (FCL) owns and operates a capillary network of gas stations and fuel storage sites, including properties that have been decommissioned and require remediation to be allocated for new uses.

FCL’s commitment to its members has stimulated a decade of cutting-edge research work with the University of Saskatchewan to develop a low-cost technology to remediate these sites.

“After considering a number of options, you’re essentially left with two: dig out the contaminated soil and bring in clean fill or wait it out for the resident bacteria in the soil to eat the hydrocarbons—a process called natural attenuation,” explains Paolo Mussone, Applied Bio/Nanotechnology Industrial Research Chair at NAIT’s School of Applied Sciences and Technology.

He also leads an applied research program focused on prototyping marketable technology using emerging nano- and bio- technologies, with the goal of improving operational efficiencies, reducing emissions and accelerating environmental remediation.

One of the challenges with natural attenuation, however, is that the process can take a long time to make the land fit for development again—three decades or more in cold clay prairie soils where bacteria are only active for a few short months between mid-May and mid-September.

“Over the past decade, University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Steven Siciliano and FCL have developed a variety of methods to stimulate bacteria in the soil to consume hydrocarbons faster,” Mussone says.

The results of this decade- long research have been impressive. For example, FCL has succeeded in remediating several sites in just over a few years at a fraction of the cost of existing technologies.

FCL and Siciliano’s approach could be perfected with NAIT’s help. The optimization of this technology requires the use of instruments that can monitor the progress of the bioremediation in near real time in order to maintain optimal rates of bioremediation and therefore reduce the overall time needed to decontaminate the site.

Adequate sensors will also allow the full automation of the remediation process and allow the deployment of the technology in geographically remote areas.

“Right now, the labour costs involved in treating sites in rural areas are very high. In some cases, remote sites can

be accessible only for part of the year,” Mussone says.

“During phase one of our project, NAIT will select a suite of sensors that are already available in the marketplace and test them to the conditions of one of FCL’s sites. During phase two of the project, we will embed these sensors into a single prototype device with the goal to ultimately integrate it into a control system that could be operated remotely.”

By the end of summer 2017, NAIT and its partners will test the prototype at one of FCL’s sites with the goal of developing an automated system by the summer of 2018.


As one of Canada’s leading polytechnics, NAIT partners with business and industry on applied research to find relevant solutions to real-world challenges. Our priority is to benefit Alberta’s key industry sectors.Alberta’s energy industry is critical to the province’s prosperity. Strongly tied to oil and gas activity is Alberta’s environmental services sector, known internationally for excellence in water treatment, waste management, soil remediation, forest-land reclamation and the development of climate-change solutions.NAIT supports this vital driver of western Canada’s economy through applied research essential to the region’s oil and gas, oil sands, and alternative energy subsectors. This includes our commitment to delivering applied-research solutions that strengthen the sector’s environmental sustainability.