It’s natural to think of bioremediation now, especially after the high-profile Exxon-Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon spills of recent years. Bioremediation refers to the process by which natural organisms, either native to an oil spill or introduced to the site, breakdown and consume petroleum and other hazardous liquids. Prior to the Exxon Valdez spill, bioremediation was largely untested. But as studies into the environmental impacts of the spill progressed, the EPA and other governmental organizations began to test bioremediation to see if it could resolve oil contamination in a more environmentally-sustainable way.

But, there are other areas where bioremediation is useful, such as the cleanup of equipment used at oil fields. This equipment requires routine cleaning, not only to prevent build-up which can slow down productivity, but also to ensure that it continues to work properly. The chemical residue of this equipment is also largely unfit for human exposure and must be disposed of properly. Below is a look at several of the most innovative and exciting implementations of bio-remediation and biodegradation in practice today.

Biodegradable Heavy Duty Degreasers and Cleaners

Traditionally, caustic cleaners, solvents (including diesel), and steam, were the solutions of choice for cleaning. However, current environmental standards and concerns have led to the creation of better options, both ecologically and economically. Plant-based materials, produced domestically, are now available. These heavy duty degreasers work the same way bioremediation procedures do at large-scale oil spills; microbes attach themselves to residue chemicals and break them down into biodegradable and safe components. In addition to cleaning, these heavy duty degreaser concentrates are designed to optimize worker safety by encapsulating and suppressing volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Batteries That Breakdown Inside the Body

This year, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign unveiled a thrilling discovery: a four-cell battery which completely dissolves after three weeks in water. This biodegradable battery was developed to help in the treatment and monitoring of tissue by introduced devices. Now, rather than two procedures, one to introduce the device and a second to remove it, biomedical devices would literally compost themselves in the body.

Two years ago, scientists at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign unveiled a range of biodegradable silicon chips capable of performing critical functions. However, the chips relied on wireless energy sources which were problematic. Hence the invention of the biodegradable battery. Once dissolved, these batteries only produce about twice the magnesium of a coronary artery stent (less than 9 milligrams of magnesium).

Future Biomedical Bioremidation Prospects

Beyond biomedical uses, these devices could have environmental applications, such as oil spill remediation (3). Tiny wireless chemical sensors deposited at the site of a slick could transit critical data, and then dissolve in the ocean, providing an invaluable resource for the cleanup process.

Biodegradable Electronics

Inner space is the ultimate final frontier for biotech. Researchers continually search for ways to explore and support the body’s inner processes with as little invasiveness as possible. As a result of this bold exploration, researchers have designed electronic components with the ability to dissolve in the body or in water. Smart devices that know how to quit while they’re ahead will literally disintegrate once they’ve completed their intended mission in a person’s body, alleviating the need for follow-up surgical removal. Examples include a tissue monitoring device, thermal patches that prevent infection, and solar cells and strain and temperature sensors.

The team behind these wonders (John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Fiorenzo Omenetto at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts) believe they have mastered the form to the point that they can produce virtually any type of dissolving, high-performance electronic or optical device. The key is using magnesium, rather than stable metals, as it is conductive, reactive, and dissolves more readily than its stable counterparts.

Biodegradable Coffins

In 2007, the first American to be buried in a totally biodegradable coffin was laid to rest. The coffin was made of made of recycled paper, shaped like a seedpod (very apropos), and was literally planted. As the coffin biodegrades, its nutrient-rich materials act as compost and fertilizer, feeding the earth. Since then, “green” burials have taken off, with the Ecopod leading the way.

Going Against the Grain

Paper-based, formaldehyde-free plywood, hand-woven Somerset willow, and fair-trade-certified bamboo coffins are in. Rain-forest mahogany and steel caskets (bound by formaldehyde-infused glue and hermetically sealed) are out.

The House that Will Die

Leave it to an architect to push the biodegradable envelope. Built in the Irish countryside, by Dominic Stevens, this home is designed to designed to “return to the earth” in ten years, if it isn’t maintained. The ultimate green habitat, the house can be expanded or contracted, and is composed of all biodegradable materials.