Evaluation of the immobilized soil bioreactor for treatment of naphthenic acids in oil sands process waters
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Extraction of bitumen from Alberta oil sands produces 2 to 4 barrels of aqueous tailings per barrel of crude oil. Oil sands process water (OSPW) contains naphthenic acids (NAs), a complex mixture of carboxylic acids of the form CnH2n+ZOx that are persistent and toxic to aquatic organisms. Previous studies have demonstrated that aerobic biodegradation reduces NA concentrations and OSPW toxicity; however, treatment times are long. The objective of this study was to evaluate the feasibility of an immobilized soil bioreactor (ISBR) for treatment of NAs in OSPW and to determine the role of ammonium and ammonium oxidizing bacteria (AOB) in NA removal. ISBRs have been used to successfully remediate water contaminated with pollutants such as pentachlorophenol and petroleum hydrocarbons. A system of two ISBRs was operated continuously for over 2 years with OSPW as the sole source of carbon. Removal levels of 30-40% were consistently achieved at a residence time of 7 days, a significant improvement compared to half-lives of 44 to 240 days reported in the literature. However, similar to biodegradation experiments in the literature, a significant portion (~60%) of the NAs was not degraded. The role of AOB in NA removal was investigated by decreasing ammonium concentration and inhibiting AOB activity with allylthiourea, neither of which significantly affected removal, indicating that AOB did not enhance NA removal. Furthermore, high AOB populations actually inhibited the removal of a simple NA surrogate. Therefore, a moderate ammonium concentration of 0.3 g/L is recommended. NA degradation occurred with nitrate as the sole nitrogen source, however, removal levels were lower than those achieved with ammonium. Exploratory studies involving ozonation or biostimulation were conducted with the aim of increasing NA removal. Ozonation decreased NA concentration by 94% and total organic carbon (TOC) by 6%. Subsequent ISBR treatment removed ~30% of the remaining TOC. Addition of a NA surrogate increased heterotrophic NA-degrading populations due to the increase in available carbon, resulting in a significant increase in NA removal levels. However, use of a surrogate may result in a population that is only adapted to degradation of the NA surrogate.