Israeli Firms Pioneering New Ways to Clean Up Oil Spills

Chemical solution being advanced as fastest way of tackling environmental pollution.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Soil and groundwater pollution is one of the more common environmental hazards facing the world. Until recently, biological methods were used to counter the problem, making use of bacteria that break down polluting agents. Lately, though, chemical dissolution of pollutants has been introduced, since this produces fewer harmful environmental by-products.

One novel method will be presented this Wednesday at a conference on energy and the environment, to be held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, under the auspices of the university’s Yissum Research and Development Company.

The new method was developed by researchers at the university’s Casali Institute of Applied Chemistry, headed by Prof. Yoel Sasson. He noted that using bacteria requires excavating the ground in order to introduce oxygen, which is required by these organisms. His team developed a new product that can also oxidize (and, thus, clean) polluted soil. For example, petroleum products are broken down into carbon dioxide and water by this new agent. “This takes only a few hours,” says Sasson. The agent does not harm infrastructure such as underground water pipes, and can also handle diesel pollution as well as solvents used in industry.

The new agent is already in use by a Swiss company called Man Oil. It was used in the cleanup of Swiss railway tracks that had been polluted by oils and fuel over many years. The compound was also tried on soil that was removed during the cleanup of last December’s oil spill at the Evrona nature reserve, near Eilat.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority did not allow the use of chemicals at the site, although Sasson believes this should eventually be possible. “This is an area that was totally polluted. We could purify it, and it could then be rehabilitated using natural processes,” said Sasson.

In Israel, bacteria are still used to purify areas in which groundwater has been contaminated. Recently, Israeli environmental services firm LDD reported using an experimental method to clean up such water. The company employs bacteria to clear up chlorine-based pollutants, breaking them into components that are no longer hazardous. Previously, it was impossible to completely break up polluting agents, leaving behind compounds that were still hazardous.