By Karen Rasmussen

According to several recent studies, the overall market size in the United States for hazardous materials contaminated site remediation falls between $7-to-8 billion annually. Demand for these services is mainly driven by government entities such as the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), related state agencies under the auspices of the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Superfund site projects, and underground storage tank regulations. Although there are several innovative technologies available to alleviate these environmental problems, one of the fastest growing areas is bioremediation.

Bioremediation is a versatile treatment process that accelerates the biological cleanup process undertaken by naturally occurring microorganisms (yeast, fungi or bacteria) to break down hazardous substances into less toxic or nontoxic substances. Microorganisms eat and digest organic substances for nutrients and energy. Certain microorganisms can digest organic substances such as fuels or solvents that are hazardous to humans. The microorganisms break down the organic contaminants into harmless products—mainly carbon dioxide and water.

Biological remediation tends to be a relatively inexpensive option because it’s employed as an in situ method and doesn’t require significant labor costs or energy inputs. According to the USEPA, biodegradation is useful for many types of organic wastes and is a cost-effective, natural process. Many techniques can be conducted onsite, eliminating the need to transport hazardous materials. The applications for biodegradation heavily depend on the toxicity and initial concentrations of the contaminants, their biodegradability, properties of the contaminated soil, and the particular treatment system selected.

Contaminants targeted for biodegradation treatment are non-halogenated volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), semi-volatile organics (SVs) and fuels. The effectiveness of bioremediation is limited at sites with high concentrations of metals, highly chlorinated organics or inorganic salts because these compounds are toxic to the microorganisms. A standard application for bioremediation is the cleanup of petroleum hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene (BTEX), and other contaminants such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), ammonium perchlorate, trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloro-ethene (PCE), and many pesticides and herbicides. Biological remediaton is also useful in the treatment of mineral oil and aromatics.

The biological treatment market is made up of several smaller firms that employ less than 50 people. Although there has been significant consolidation in the remediation services industry overall, manufacturers of bioremediation technology tend to be somewhat fragmented having entered the market with specific biological expertise. Since it has become essential for larger engineering and consulting firms to provide a diversified product line, bioremediation has become a part of their offerings as well.

With the significant growth of the U.S. bioremediation market, and the European bioremediation market projected at $119 million in 2003, it’s clear that there has been a greater acceptance by end-users and regulators for these technologies as their advantages become better understood. As biological treatment is one of the less expensive technologies (because, again, it’s generally in situ and involves little or no energy input), it’s expected to become more popular as time progresses. Prices are subsequently expected to become even more competitive with other technologies, thus making the cost of bioremediation one of the largest drivers for the technology’s growth.

Additionally, there are several organizations and government entities advancing the research of this technology while trying to make it more appealing to end-users. For example, the Energy Department (DOE) does a great deal of bioremediation research with the natural and accelerated bioremediation program (NABIR)—see http://www.lbl. gov/NABIR/. In 2000, the budget for this well-coordinated, comprehensive research program was $25 million. Along with the DOE’s efforts in furthering quality research, bioremediation scientists are searching for cost-effective technologies to improve current remediation methods to clean up DOE’s contaminated sites.

This research was conducted in 2001 and will continue into the future, leading to new discoveries for reliable methods of bioremediation of metals and radionuclides as well as organic pollutants in soils and groundwater. The NABIR program is unique in that it supports the basic research that’s needed to understand this technology and to more reliably develop the practical applications for cost-effective cleanup of pollutants at DOE sites. With this initiative by the DOE and increasing acceptance of these technologies, bioremediation is likely to have a promising future in the United States and around the world.


  1.  USEPA, “National Summary of Unregulated Contaminants in Public Water Systems,” EPA 815-P-00-002, January 2001, or website:
  2. USEPA, “Factoids: Drinking Water and Ground Water Statistics for 2000,” June 2001 website:
  3. USEPA, “Burden and Cost Calculations for the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulation (2000-2005),” March 1999, website:

About the author
Karen Rasmussen is the industry manager of the Environmental Research Group at Frost & Sullivan and is responsible for business planning, strategy, development and implementation. Rasmussen graduated from Menlo College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. If you would like more information about this article, please contact Cynthia Cabral at (210) 247-2440, (210) 348-1003 (fax) or email: [email protected]


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