Effects of physical and geochemical heterogeneities on mineral transformation and biomass accumulation during biostimulation experiments at Rifle, Colorado

Li Li, Carl I. Steefel, Michael B. Kowalsky, Andreas Englert, Susan S. Hubbard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

128 Scopus citations


Electron donor amendment for bioremediation often results in precipitation of secondary minerals and the growth of biomass, both of which can potentially change flow paths and the efficacy of bioremediation. Quantitative estimation of precipitate and biomass distribution has remained challenging, partly due to the intrinsic heterogeneities of natural porous media and the scarcity of field data. In this work, we examine the effects of physical and geochemical heterogeneities on the spatial distributions of mineral precipitates and biomass accumulated during a biostimulation field experiment near Rifle, Colorado. Field bromide breakthrough data were used to infer a heterogeneous distribution of hydraulic conductivity through inverse transport modeling, while the solid phase Fe(III) content was determined by assuming a negative correlation with hydraulic conductivity. Validated by field aqueous geochemical data, reactive transport modeling was used to explicitly keep track of the growth of the biomass and to estimate the spatial distribution of precipitates and biomass. The results show that the maximum mineral precipitation and biomass accumulation occurs in the vicinity of the injection wells, occupying up to 5.4 vol.% of the pore space, and is dominated by reaction products of sulfate reduction. Accumulation near the injection wells is not strongly affected by heterogeneities present in the system due to the ubiquitous presence of sulfate in the groundwater. However, accumulation in the down-gradient regions is dominated by the iron-reducing reaction products, whose spatial patterns are strongly controlled by both physical and geochemical heterogeneities. Heterogeneities can lead to localized large accumulation of mineral precipitates and biomass, increasing the possibility of pore clogging. Although ignoring the heterogeneities of the system can lead to adequate prediction of the average behavior of sulfate-reducing related products, it can also lead to an overestimation of the overall accumulation of iron-reducing bacteria, as well as the rate and extent of iron reduction. Surprisingly, the model predicts that the total amount of uranium being reduced in the heterogeneous 2D system was similar to that in the 1D homogeneous system, suggesting that the overall uranium bioremediation efficacy may not be significantly affected by the heterogeneities of Fe(III) content in the down-gradient regions. Rather, the characteristics close to the vicinity of the injection wells might be crucial in determining the overall efficacy of uranium bioremediation. These findings have important implications not only for uranium bioremediation at the Rifle site and for bioremediation of other redox sensitive contaminants at sites with similar characteristics, but also for the development of optimal amendment delivery strategies in other settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-63
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Mar 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology


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