Fairbanks researcher discusses discovery of sulfolane eating microbe

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska. (KTVF) University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers recently discovered a microbe that eats sulfolane.

Research technicians doing lab work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF)

The research was conducted to study whether microbes exist in the North Pole area that can biodegrade the problematic chemical.

UAF Researcher Mary Beth Leigh, PhD, says they were trying to see how long sulfolane would be around, and if it would disappear on its own. If there was a natural process already occurring, they wanted to know if there was a way to speed it up.

Leigh says they did find that there were microbes present that can break down sulfolane on their own, but that they are not doing it in the natural environment due to a lack of oxygen. In the groundwater, Leigh says there is not enough oxygen for them to break the sulfolane down.

Adding oxygen is a possibility, but the only experiment done in North Pole was on a small scale. The experiment showed that adding oxygen did lead to the sulfolane disappearing rapidly after the element was added.

Leigh says although this can be an effective technique, the area of contamination in North Pole is too large for it to be effective. "Even though there are microbes that are naturally present there that can break it down, they're just not able to do that effectively in the groundwater in North Pole because they need oxygen -- and there's just not enough oxygen present in the subsurface. So what this means is that the sulfolane contamination is going to be there for many many years to come," said Leigh.

Leigh says the results of this study were provided to the state's legal counsel, and played a part in the recent trial that held the former North Pole refinery owner Williams Alaska Petroleum responsible for contamination clean up.

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