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Bio2clean fosters decades of knowledge on phytoremediation to make remediation of soils and ground water more sustainable and eco-friendly. The innovation lies in the specific cross-talk between plants and microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi that in symbiosis remove pollutants and improve the quality of their environment. The phytoremediation approach is green and sustainable. After the initial installation of the plants, nature does its work and there is no additional consumption of resources (energy, ground water). Furthermore, phytoremediation contributes to carbon sequestration with a positive effect on climate change. Compared to conventional remediation techniques (excavation, pump and treat, soil washing, vitrification, encapsulation, bioremediation), the technology has a significant positive impact on biodiversity (on land and in water) and in urban locations. The additional greenery has a positive effect on the quality of the living environment.
The innovation builds on an impressive collection of bacteria and knowledge about their interaction with a variety of plants from the Center of Environmental Research (CMK) of Hasselt University. “For phytoremediation of organic contamination, it is important that the right microorganisms are present to degrade the pollution. This optimal symbiosis is the essence of our technology”, Dirk Dubin says. The symbiosis between plant and bacteria is balanced by the level of pollution. As long as the pollution is present, the bacteria will guide a plant in the correct processing direction by mechanisms such as gene transfer to other relevant bacteria. Once the pollution is cleared, research showed that the bacteria disappear naturally. This self-regulation is different from bioremediation where humans regularly have to add chemicals and bacteria to the polluted soil that dissolve rather quickly.
In short, when there is an organic polluted site, a first analysis is performed to see if and how the site can be phytoremediated. If this is pollution that has not been treated before, additional tests might first be needed. Based on this analysis, a recommendation of optimal plants and microorganisms can be formulated. After the plantation, there will be regular follow-up analyses to evaluate the progress of the remediation and the condition of the plant-microorganism to be able to intervene when necessary. This is necessary as phytoremediation takes time and monitoring the wrong parameters might lead to the wrong conclusions. Dirk emphasizes, “We make a quality and qualified monitoring strategy a top priority. Therefore, we also lobbied for (and eventually co-wrote) a code of good practice for phytoremediation with the Flemish Public Waste Agency which was published in January 2019 and should protect the sector – at least in Flanders – from malpractices.”
Compared to other types of remediation, this method has a minimal ecological footprint as the CO2 producing steps are limited and mainly necessary during the plantation phase. Afterwards, the entire process happens by nature with limited human intervention or energy/resource consumption. Depending on the amount of pollution, after a period of 5-10 years, the society has access again to clean territory with a safeguarded biodiversity.
Ever since the 1980s, CMK’s researchers have been focusing on green soil remediation. In the early 2000s, Ford Genk was confronted with a serious soil pollution problem. One of the technologies that was implemented to tackle this problem was based on phytoremediation by the UHasselt team (Barac et al. 2009). “At that time, I was an environmental engineer at Ford Genk and responsible for soil and water. The first results convinced me that phytoremediation is effective, and I looked inside Ford Genk for other possible projects, with success”, recalls Dirk. “As an engineer, I am always looking to solve problems. That drives me and gives me energy. Soil pollution is one of these problems with a big impact on the environment and society. It is a complex problem with a lot of parameters and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. That is what makes this so interesting for me. Professor Dr. Jaco Vangronsveld has invested many years and efforts in building something beautiful in academic terms. Together with my business partner Mario Clemmens, we wanted to put this into practice and become a pioneer in Belgium and Flanders for the application of phytoremediation.”
“In Europe about 324,000 severely polluted sites exist, which pose a risk to humans and the environment. Conventional remediation technologies to clean them are often too expensive and technically challenging”, Nele Witters, PhD, one of the UHasselt project managers, writes on LinkedIn. Bio2clean provides an answer to that. On their website, there are several examples of ongoing projects in Belgium and the Netherlands that are expected to give a medium-term effect on pollution and redevelopment of polluted sites. On the short-term, the bio2clean solution provides for a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way of remediation with a positive impact on the climate as the consumption of energy and fossil fuels for the remediation is limited. Finally, on the long-term with upscaling of the technology worldwide, the sustainable remediation of pollution will have a positive effect on the environment as a whole and on the health of people living in polluted areas. To emphasize this impact: In a 2021 report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations wrote that minimum 23% of global deaths can be attributed to environmental factors, for which soil is a key link in the functioning of ecosystems. Additionally, the poor (low-income and middle-income countries) and vulnerable (e.g. children) population is affected disproportionally.
After the first successes at the Ford Genk site, Bio2clean got involved in additional European projects to implement their phytoremediation solution at several sites in Belgium. As the positive results of these projects become more and more available (it takes about 5-10 years), the trust of soil remediation experts in this new technology will rise and they will be more open to switching to newer techniques. The current energy crisis and changes in policy to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase CO2 sequestration in essence play into Bio2clean’s hand.
Furthermore, Bio2clean is not sitting still. While the COVID pandemic had a negative impact on the events to attend and the potential of attracting new customers, they organized online webinars and site visits. This way they encountered new potential partners who have questions regarding soil nutrients instead of pollution. This now is a whole new area that can be explored for phytoremediation. “We have started Bio2clean with the main purpose to apply phytoremediation to polluted sites. In the meantime, we have noticed that the soil remediation world is quite rigid, making changes is very difficult. Via European projects, we are now strengthening our relations also with nature organizations and agriculture that have different questions with respect to soil nutrients in their areas. This has led to new links, new research and new opportunities to look at soil remediations from many different angles”, explains Dirk.
Via phytoremediation, Bio2clean has a plethora of benefits for the society and the environment. There is a big impact on biodiversity since the soil life is less disturbed, there is a good soil quality and there is less erosion. These soil qualities in turn have a positive impact on plant and wildlife diversity. Furthermore, there is a sustainable impact on climate by the limited use of resources and energy along with the storage of greenhouse gases.
From a living environment point of view, the application of phytoremediation has several positive effects: 1) there is an improvement of air quality due to the capture of particulate matter, 2) vegetation can reduce noise pollution, 3) local climate regulation can reduce the presence of heat islands in cities and 4) you can create an attractive green environment that stimulates outdoor activities.
Finally, phytoremediation by Bio2clean will stimulate good health and wellbeing of the society by reducing health risks and providing attractive landscapes and nature with positive effects on both physical and mental health.
Dirk Dubin, Managing partner