PULLMAN, Wash. — A Washington State University researcher has recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Energy to study the use of bacteria in stopping underground movement of contaminants, such as uranium, in groundwater.

The work is important for designing treatment strategies and for improving cleanup of contaminants from soils around aging nuclear facilities, such as the DOE’s site at Hanford. If the uranium can be precipitated out of the groundwater and locked up in the soil, sensitive areas such as rivers and wetlands can be protected. Although bacteria has been used for years to clean up organic contaminants, such as oil spills and chlorinated solvents, its use against pollution from heavy metals is a new application in bioremediation.

Brent Peyton, assistant professor in chemical engineering, is collaborating with a multidisciplinary team of researchers, including Gill Geesey and Zbigniew Lewandowski from Montana State University and James Amonette at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Peyton hopes to determine how different types of bacteria and soil compositions affect the ability to immobilize uranium in contaminated aquifers. Previous work has shown that bacteria found naturally in soils and groundwater may be used to stop the spread of toxic heavy metals and radionuclides, including uranium.

Novel techniques will be used in the three-year project, including biological reactors that simulate groundwater flow, microsized probes to measure chemical concentrations near bacterial surfaces, and specially designed field sampling equipment to better relate laboratory tests to field conditions.