ABU DHABI // Bacteria living in the sludge produced by Abu Dhabi's oil refineries may hold the key to methods of treating polluted water.
Dr Salman Ashraf, associate professor of biochemistry at UAE University, has been given a Dh750,000 grant through the National Research Foundation to research such a possibility.
With the help of microbiologist Huda Al Hassani and two students, Dr Ashraf is concentrating his efforts on bacteria living in the waste produced by the Ruwais refinery.
"Right now we have eight bacteria that we have isolated from that source, from the petroleum-contaminated sludge," he said on the sidelines of the UAE-Swiss Research Day in Dubai yesterday.
"Now we are at a point of testing these bacteria to see if they can degrade different kinds of pollutants. It is the early stages but it looks very promising."
The research builds on previous work by the scientist who, several years ago, isolated a new strain of the bacterium Brevibacillus sp, and proved it was capable of degrading a textile dye, known as Toluidine blue. His findings were published in scientific journals in 2007.
Dr Ashraf will work with 10 different classes of organic pollutants including azo dyes, which are among the most common pigments used by the textile industry, triphenil dyes and others.
He is interested in textile dyes as they are a leading source of water pollution in the developing world.
Of the about one million tonnes of organic dyes produced each year, up to 20 per cent is lost in effluents in the manufacture and application processes.
This pollution can have negative effects on humans, causing cancer, skin diseases and muscle degeneration, Dr Ashraf said.
While the UAE has little in the way of textile making, finding a bacterium or a group of bacteria that degrade these pollutants could also have important implications for locally produced waste.
"We are using textile pollutants as a model because they are coloured, so we can very easily see the colour going down, if it is working," Dr Ashraf said.
The chemical structure of the dyes to be tested has similarities with the chemical structure of some oil-waste products.
"The idea was to use the experimental step and apply it in real-life with petroleum pollution," said Dr Ashraf. "The real test will be to go to water bodies, such as Dubai Creek where the water is very polluted."
He said the effluent from oil refineries and pollution caused by tankers discharging oil at sea could also benefit if a technology were developed using his concept.
The study would not be possible without a basic quality of bacteria - the ability to adapt to different types of environments.
The research is still years from producing his goal of a pilot plant where "litres and litres" of contaminated water can be cleaned.
"This is when more funding and collaboration with engineers will be needed," Dr Ashraf said.