An innovation by TERI has all the makings of a grand Hollywood motion picture. The plot revolves around a mammoth oil tanker that leaks, causing great catastrophe. There are shots of the carnage on television – sea birds and fish washed ashore, their bodies sodden with crude oil. Amidst all the chaos, only one man – the protagonist, of course – knows what to do. He has Oilzapper, a bacterial consortium that degrades crude oil and oily sludge. The rest is a join-thedots game.
This is not about a movie script but a real achievement – the Oilzapper. Developed by TERI after seven years of research work and partly supported by the DBT (Department of Biotechnology), Ministry of Science and Technology, Government of India, the Oilzapper is essentially a cocktail of five different bacterial strains that are immobilized and mixed with a carrier material (powdered corncob).
Much as its savvy name suggests, the Oilzapper feeds on hydrocarbon compounds
present in crude oil and oily sludge (a hazardous hydrocarbon waste generated
by oil refineries) and converts them into harmless CO2 and water.
The Oilzapper is neatly packed into sterile polythene bags and sealed aseptically
for safe transport. The shelf life of the product is three months at ambient
The scientific term for the abovementioned process is bioremediation. ‘Bio’ refers to living and ‘remediate’ means to fix or cure. It is a branch of biotechnology that makes use of living organisms to reduce or eliminate environmental hazards resulting from accumulation of toxic chemicals, or hazardous waste. A first-of-its-kind solution, Oilzapper’s uniqueness lies in the bio-friendly manner in which it detoxifies oily sludges and cleans up oil slicks.
One of the biggest and most frequent threats for any oil refinery is oil sludge. There are 16 refineries in India and all create toxic waste. Estimates suggest that about 20 000 tonnes of petroleum sludge is generated every year. At present, refineries have to construct polymer-lined pits with a special leachate collection system to prevent the dumped sludge from leaking into the earth and groundwater. A pit costs about 10 million rupees and each refinery needs several such pits. With more refineries being set up, space is always a constraint. What’s more, a pit gets filled up in three to four years whereas with Oilzapper, one just needs 200 tonnes of environment-friendly bacteria to clean up 20 000 tonnes of oily waste!
When an oil spill occurs at sea, oil floats above water since it is lighter. It therefore catches fire swiftly, endangering the ecosystem for all times. Oil spills on land (due to leakage from pipelines, pilferage, etc.) too cause fire hazards and pollute groundwater and air. With Oilzapper, a contamination of 20% (say, 200 grams per kilogram of oil) can be taken care of in two months. A blessing for the oil exploration and production sites and oil refineries, the Oilzapper has proven particularly relevant in the wake of the everincreasing movement of oil across land and water, the many oil-transport related accidents in the past and oilwaste management issues at the refineries.
|Pre-bioremediation: a site in Mehsana, Gujarat||Post-bioremediation: the same site after 2 months|
The good news is that more than 5000 hectares of cropland contaminated with crude oil spills has already been reclaimed in different parts of India and more than 26 000 tonnes of oily sludge successfully treated with Oilzapper. Many oil-slick contaminated lakes in the north-eastern parts of India have also been cleaned up in two years. Table 1 provides details of the amount of oily sludge treated in India.
Zapping oil - where and how much?
|Refinery/ Oil installation site||Quantity of sludge treated (tonnes)|
|Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.|
|Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd., Mumba, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd.||300|
|Oil India Ltd., Duliajan||700|
|Reliance Refinery, Jamnagar||20|
|Indian Petrochemicals Ltd., Nagothane||50|
|Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd., Panipat||10|
|Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd., Kandla||100|
|Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., Rajkot||350|
|Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd.|
Oilzapper has elicited tremendous response in India and abroad. The
BPCL (Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd), the IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation
Ltd), the ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation), the OIL (Oil India
Ltd), the HPCL (Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd), and the RIL (Reliance
Industries Ltd) are some of its consumers (Table 1).
The know-how of Oilzapper technology has been shared with BPCL, Mumbai, for their internal use but it is marketed by TERI, New Delhi. Oilivorous-S (Box 1), on the other hand, was jointly developed by TERI’s microbial biotechnology laboratory and the R&D Centre of the IOCL, New Delhi. It is marketed by both the organizations.
Among all the other advantages these technologies offer, two crucial
ones stand out. First, both Oilzapper and Oilivorous-S can be used in
situ, thereby eliminating the need to transfer large quantities of contaminated
waste from the site, a process that poses more threats to the environment.
Secondly, the solution is complete in itself—contaminants are not merely
transferred from one environmental medium to another (from water to
air or land) but destroyed.
Moreover, bioremediation is far more cost-effective than other technologies used to clean up hazardous waste—Oilzapper/Oilivorous-S work out 30% cheaper than the conventional physico-chemical treatments.