April 8, 2007, Updated September 13, 2012

‘BioPetroClean provides a solution that is eight times cheaper than cleaning by mechanical means.’The spectrum of bacteria existing in the world are often described by the title of the 1960s Clint Eastwood film – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Some bacteria are downright ruthless and can kill us, like salmonella; others are indispensable and are responsible for breaking down food in our stomachs and putting dead plant and animal matter back into the cycle of nature.

Professor Eugene Rosenberg, an Israeli professor from Tel Aviv University, has for decades been researching a ‘good’ variety of bacteria called arthrobactor present at sites of crude oil contamination. As he once told Time Magazine, the single-celled microorganisms enjoy feasting on oil and therefore play a major role in cleaning up oils spills.

We rely heavily on crude oil to fuel important parts of our lives – from driving our cars to heating our homes – but the business of oil drilling, transport and refinery is still a very dirty business. Humanity shuddered collectively over the devastation after the hull of the Exxon Valdez cracked open and spewed million of gallons of crude oil into the sea in 1989. And despite the known environmental risks to animals, plants and humans, oil contamination – accidental and purposeful – continues regularly today both on land and at sea.

But based on Rosenberg’s research, a newly formed Israeli company BioPetroClean is helping oil companies clean up their act. The company has reared Rosenberg’s strains of bacteria on a large scale and is building custom-made biological reactors to provide a green, clean, and cost-effective solution to many forms of oil contamination.

According to its CEO David Amir, BioPetroClean can clean everything from oil storage facilities and bilges of tankers to oil spills at sea; it takes on challenges such as cleaning oil pipelines which until now were almost impossible to do. Every company, he notes, has its own unique needs.

“We take the samples back to the lab and brainstorm from both the biological and business point of view,” he told ISRAEL21c

Last year, BioPetroClean sent its bacteria on a maiden voyage to clean up the contaminated water produced by the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), home to one of Israel’s largest oil storage facilities.

“We have lots of water that comes shipped with crude oil and after the tankers transfer it, we have to take out the water,” explains Itzik Levi, EAPC’s port manager and operations head. “The water that is sent to the sea needs to be treated and clean.”

Previous mechanical methods the company used of sifting the dirty oil through sand, proved to be difficult, expensive and not entirely ‘clean’. Prompted by a visit from Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, Levi started looking for new solutions. He was introduced to BioPetroClean, which took a sample of the EAPC’s oil contaminated water back to the lab and the boardroom.

There, BioPetroClean concocted the perfect cocktail of bacteria, including nutrients that would consume the greatest amount of oil in the shortest time. The end product would be carbon-dioxide and water.

To convince EAPC, BioPetroClean built a two by two meter cement tank near its oil storage facilities in Ashkelon. Inside it, the company added the bacteria, suspended in a liquid medium, to hundreds of gallons of contaminated water. Within a few days, the murky water came out of the tank crystal clear.

“Lots of people at my company didn’t believe in this method at first,” Levi told ISRAEL21c. “We tried it in small amounts and I saw the results before my very eyes, how in two or three days, our dirty water looked like seawater again. I was convinced.”

BioPetroClean’s concept, which conforms to EPA standards, worked and now EAPC is licensing the technology to use on a regular basis.

“BioPetroClean provides a solution that is eight times cheaper than cleaning by mechanical means,” notes Levi. And the process, he adds, makes it easy for him to scale up should he need larger clean-up jobs done. “If you want to make the process faster, you just need a bigger pool and more bacteria.

“If we have a disaster and the bacteria dies, BioPetroClean will bring us a new batch of bacteria. But if everything’s ok, we won’t need anything from them because in usual circumstances, the bacteria grow by themselves.”

BioPetroClean CEO Amir is thrilled with the results at EAPC and said that the project convinced investors to fund BioPetroClean last year to the tune of $3 million. The money will help the privately-owned company take on a number of projects around the world including oil contamination sites in Sweden and Mexico.

Amir, a self-professed entrepreneur, decided to get involved in BioPetroClean to uncover “some more of Israel’s hidden talent”.

“My theory is that we are full of talent in Israel. My mission is to uncover it, and one of my recent finds happens to be BioPetroClean.”

And Israel, he agrees, is a great place to jumpstart companies like BioPetroClean, which are working in the area of clean-tech. “Purifying water is becoming the major issue worldwide – and we are hoping that some other companies will take water cleaned from our process and go all the way to make it drinkable,” he suggests.

As for a dream client, Amir would choose oil companies that are operating drill sites on land.

“Drill sites are hard on the environment – hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water are contaminated every hour. Until now, there has been no solution. We can’t ask a man to do something that is impossible – but with new technology like ours, it is possible to clean the water on the spot.”

Further down the road Amir envisions working with drill sites at sea. “They don’t have the space to build water separators and can’t hold the weight of them anyway. We could tailor-make a process that fits the needs of an oil platform at sea which would be a big rescue project for the environment.”

On a day-to-day basis, Amir is spending most of his time networking and looking for new business partners to try the BioPetroClean bacteria reactors. “Some people think the technology is too good to be true. We are showing them that it is good and true!

“In 2007, BioPetroClean will establish an environment that lets us grow bacteria in local markets around the world. Israel won’t be bacteria incubators for the universe – we would rather link to service providers across the universe. This would give better service and more oil contamination clean-up possibilities.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director