Bottling custom bacteria to eat the dirtiest grime

Microbes love to eat our nastiest by-products, like fat, oil, and grease. Instead of using caustic chemicals to clean up messes, why not just employ nature’s garbage men?

When you want something done right, you call in the experts. When it comes to cleaning up the dirtiest, greasiest messes, microbes are those experts. For the last 3.5 billion years, single-cell organisms have been metabolising everything from the sulfuric compounds in volcanic vents to the worst toxins humans have thrown at them.

Now they’re making their way into cleaning products. Bacteria, it turns out, love to eat everything we hate in our buildings: fat, oils, grease, sludge, and other messes that cling to the floors, pipes, grouting, and other surfaces.

The standard approach has been to use caustic chemicals such as soda lye and toxic solvents to clean up these messes. At best, this is a temporary reprieve. Exposure to such chemicals may also lead to “toxicity [of] the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis,” according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Technically known as bioremediation, the concept of cleaning up messes with microbes (and biological enzymes) has been around since the 1940s. Typically it has been used on massively contaminated areas like abandoned mines or Superfund sites.

Bioremediation productsBut bioremediation now comes in a bottle. Harmless, naturally occurring microbes in the environment such as bacillus and pseudomonas – which munch on fats, oils, sludge, and other compounds – are collected, cultured, and packaged for specific clean-up jobs, says John Beattie, director of business development at Blue Eagle Products which manufactures the cleaning solutions.

His job has gotten easier in the last 15 years as the technology to isolate, grow, and store the right microbes for the job has improved dramatically.

Living cleaning solutions are now cost-competitive and superior to their toxic chemical counterparts, says Beattie. Their only byproduct is carbon dioxide and water, while the cleaning solution keeps working as long as food, moisture, and oxygen are available for the bugs…..

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