It is known that Kazakhstan has the largest proven oil reserves in the Caspian Sea region. According to the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, proven reserves of hydrocarbons, both onshore and offshore, are estimated at 4.8 billion tons or more than 35 billion barrels . At present, there are more than 250 oil and gas fields across the country that yielded approximately 67.5 million tonnes of oil in 2020 . However, with the active exploitation of oil reserves, the severity of environmental issues increases too. One of the most detrimental problems is the oil spills occurring during extraction, transportation, and processing steps due to a weak technical foundation and inadequate control. Nowadays, oil spills prevention and response have become one of the most critical aspects of the oil industry, requiring a thorough and complex approach. In addition, the problem of historically contaminated soils with petroleum products remains unresolved. In this regard, there is a growing need for a new biological method that will be effective, affordable, and, foremost, safe.
To design a practical solution, we realized the importance of interaction with key stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle. Our approach was centred around our end-users, companies specializing in bioremediation and oil spill response. Apart from that, we constantly consulted with the government representatives, science community, and ecologists to elaborate on every aspect of the project. For effective communication, we decided to divide the project development into 5 phases. During each phase we reached out to different stakeholders, to tackle the emerging questions. After each interaction, we analysed the given feedback and brainstormed on possible solutions. This way we wanted to create a cycle of constant refinement to propose a perfect solution.
1. UNDERSTAND the problem
At present, the problem of oil spills and oil-contaminated soil is considered the most complex problem requiring a thorough approach. So, before starting our work in the lab, we realized the importance of profoundly understanding the problem. We wanted to know about:
- The problem of oil spills and oil-contaminated soil and water.
- To understand the process of cleaning the oil-contaminated soil and water.
- To learn more about the regulations.
In this regard, we communicated with numerous experts representing the government, business, and ecological associations to address every aspect of the problem.
Our team also worked with the Kazakhstan Association of regional environmental initiatives "EcoJer" to get an independent expert opinion on the situation. Chief specialist of the Department of Ecology, Ms Gulzhan Tursynova, informed us about the problem of abandoned oil wells and the caused oil spills. She pointed out that this issue currently requires close attention from ecologists and the government regarding monitoring and prevention. Ms Gulzhan Tursynova also shared her personal opinion about current oil spill liquidation methods. She emphasized the significance of developing a new bioremediation method that will have high efficiency in a short time. Moreover, Ms Gulzhan Tursynova recommended paying close attention to the novelties of environmental legislation. She acknowledged that the government is taking fundamental steps to implement the best available technologies and encouraged participating in the EcoJer International Congress.
Considering the complexity of the oil contamination problem in Kazakhstan, we also contacted the government representatives. Before starting the work on our project, we needed to clarify important questions regarding the legislative part. According to the representatives of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the owners of facilities that carry the risk of an oil spill are responsible for responding to the oil spill. In the event of an oil spill, companies are obliged to immediately inform the territorial subdivisions of the authorized bodies in environmental and civil protection. Then take oil spill response actions following the approved oil spill response plan of the facility. The authorized body in the field of environmental protection, from its side, recommends the methods used and controls the execution phase. There are currently three approved methods: mechanical collection and cleaning, chemicals, and oil slick burning. As the Ministry representatives said, bioremediation can be considered as an oil spill response method. Still, they highlighted that this method does not give quick results; it is necessary to plan such work well and have the appropriate knowledge. Also, they warned, not all organisms can be suitable for the conditions of the Caspian Sea. So, they recommended considering these aspects carefully.
During our meeting with Caspian Sea Support LLP, the director of the company Nurassyl Ualievich extensively described the process of oil spill prevention and its cleaning. He highlighted the involvement of several companies in this chain. For example, Caspian Sea Support LLP is responsible for preventing oil spills in the Caspian Sea. Moreover, the company provides its services for several oil companies to clean oil spills in the sea. Nurassyl Ualiyevich emphasized that the company mainly uses mechanical and chemical methods such as booms, absorbents, and physical barriers, which are the most effective in emergencies. The collected oil then is taken by another company that is specialised in bioremediation. So he advised us to focus on bioremediation and speak with companies responsible for the disposal of oil wastes and recultivation of oil-contaminated soil.
Understanding the significance of keeping up with the implemented changes to the Environmental Code, we decided to participate in EcoJer International Congress. With the help of this event, we wanted to know more about the environmental legislation in our country. This congress provided a robust platform where representatives of government institutions, top management of large industrial companies, ecological associations, and the public sector could discuss existing environmental problems and propose solutions. Our team had a great chance to explore firsthand the best international practices in ecology and sustainable development and exchange ideas with the leading experts in this field. Attending this event allowed us to understand the implemented legislative changes better and talk to experts with diverse backgrounds.
As a result, we realised that oil spill response and bioremediation are complex processes closely regulated by the government and oil companies. After speaking with key stakeholders, we understood how those processes are controlled and schematically described them.
Scheme 1. Oil spill response and removal process
From this scheme, we can see that the bioremediation companies are the final unit in the chain. They receive the collected waste and carry out the cleaning of oil-contaminated water and soil. Identifying our end-users, we decided to focus on bioremediation companies and their needs.
In addition, considering the current oil industry scale, there are numerous problems concerning low environmental responsibility standards and transparency in this field. Remarkably, most companies still utilise highly invasive and damaging chemical and physical methods in oil spill cleaning. So it inspired us to spread awareness about bioremediation as a part of our public engagement work (link to PE).
2. Collaborate with OUR END-USERS
After understanding the process of oil spill regulation and the role of key players in this chain, we decided to focus on our END-USERS, the companies that provide bioremediation services. These are manufacturers of biological products and companies specializing in the bioremediation of oil-contaminated water and soil. With the help of these meetings, we aimed to understand:
- The main problems that our end-users face.
- The current tendencies in the field of bioremediation.
- To get insights into the bioremediation process and understand the necessities of our end-users.
We spoke with the representatives of one of the leading bioremediation companies in the Kazakhstani market, KazEcoSolutions LLP. The general director of KazEcoSolutions LLP, Olzhas Duissenov, provided valuable insights into the bioremediation industry of our country. He thoroughly explained every aspect of the process and helped understand the potential of our solution in the bioremediation of oil-contaminated soils. Mr Olzhas Duissenov emphasised that the recultivation of oil-contaminated land is a complex process. Along with the effective biological method, it is crucial to take agrotechnical and mechanical measures. Notably, the primary preparation, such as ploughing, harrowing and applying organic fertilisers, stimulate the indigenous soil microflora and soil moistening. However, this additional preparation substantially increases the cost of bioremediation, so there is a growing need for an innovative approach.
Along with KazEcoSolutions LLP, we have contacted the KMG Systems & Services LLP representatives, specializing in eliminating emergency oil spills (OSR) for the largest oil companies in Kazakhstan. The main goal of our meeting was to speak about the potential of RemiDuEt in the bioremediation of oil-contaminated water onsite. After describing our project, the company representatives recommended focusing on the safety of the method. They advised thinking about the project design and the end product thoroughly. As Ms Saltanat Kassymbekova pointed out, researching the impact of our approach on the Caspian Sea flora and fauna and elaborating on its long-term effect is the key aspects that we should consider.
Along with that, we talked about the potential application of our method in microbially enhanced oil recovery. The company representatives supported the theoretical background. However, they advised us to concentrate on comparative analysis with the existing approaches to assess commercialization prospects objectively.
Speaking with our end-users dramatically changed our vision of bioremediation. We understood that the biological methods themselves are pretty efficient. However, external factors and primary preparation significantly worsen their action and raise the cost of bioremediation. Still seeing the potential of RemiDuET in soil bioremediation, we started to think about the design of our project. After analyzing the problems faced by KazEcoSolutions, we realized the need for an additive product that will facilitate the action of biological methods. So, we decided to test our rhamnolipids as a supplementary tool. Enhancing the rhamnolipid yield and having low cost were critical questions for the commercialization prospects of our method. Moreover, we learned that the integrity of Caspian Sea biodiversity is a critical aspect in applying new methods. So, to address our question regarding safety and efficiency, we decided to consult experts from the scientific field with an extensive background in environmental consulting.
After understanding the process of bioremediation and speaking with our end-users, we concentrated on designing a solution that will be safe, effective, and affordable. As our end-users pointed out, we started to brainstorm about methods that will make rhamnolipid production cheaper and increase the yield. At this stage, we brainstormed about the end-product. Particularly, we considered the usage of rhamnolipids with bacteria offsite, in the case of oil-contaminated water bioremediation. Moreover, we were thinking about ways to minimize the cost, as the RemiDuET product was not significantly cheaper compared to other biosurfactants.
In this regard, we turned to the leading experts in bioremediation that have extensive experience in developing and testing biological methods.
Our end-users pointed out the importance of the cost-effectiveness and safety of the method for industrial application. Therefore, we decided to address this aspect with the Research and Production Center for Microbiology and Virology representatives. The research group from this organization took an active role in developing bioremediation products for oil spill cleaning and worked on several social and environment-oriented programs. During our meeting, the senior researcher Ms Gul Bekarystanovna emphasized the importance of assessing the safety of microorganisms used. She encouraged us to focus on the ex-situ method, this way minimizing the hazards. We also asked for their feedback regarding the application of our product in microbially enhanced oil remediation. In general, they positively assessed its theoretical potential. However, they warned that even with bioreactors it will be very expensive to produce rhamnolipids. Ms Gul Bekarystanovna recommended thinking about the ways to optimize the culturing conditions and using new substrates especially those arising from industrial wastes.
After analysing the feedback of researchers from the Research and Production Center for Microbiology and Virology, we talked to the leading experts of EcoStandart.kz LLP. This company provides consulting services to the most prominent enterprises of Kazakhstan on the disposal of different wastes, including oil and drilling waste. The research group of EcoStandart.kz LLP highlighted the significance of enhancing the rhamnolipids production using the bioreactor with graphite electrodes. They also stressed the significance of rhamnolipids purification to minimise the risks for the environment. So, they recommended thinking about effective purification methods.
Through our collaboration with the experts in bioremediation, we learned the critical importance of obtaining pure products, as it is economically advantageous and safe. Our conversation with scientists also showed that we need to focus on purely ex-situ bioremediation. By analysing and implementing their feedback, we had a clear vision of our product and the production process. However, to develop a useful product and adapt it to the real-world situation, we spend considerable time collaborating with our end-users. This way, we constantly reach out to our end-users to further refine the RemiDuEt product.
Scheme 3. Oil spill response and removal process
4. Continuous Improvement
We continuously collaborated with our end-users to further refine our idea into a product suitable for the market. This way, we addressed different questions regarding the implementation and commercialisation to ensure our product would meet real-world demands.
By working with KazEcoSolutions LLP, we focused on developing our product for the bioremediation of oil-contaminated soil. Throughout the summer, we contacted the General Director, Mr Olzhas Duissenov, whose team worked on the recultivation of historically oil-contaminated soil in the Atyrau region. Mr Olzhas Duissenov kindly provided samples of oil-contaminated soil and shared his experience using the bioremediation method in Kazakhstan. Currently, KazEcoSolutions LLP uses its own patented biological product, "Miko-Oil'', based on active bacterial and yeast strains that destroy oil hydrocarbons. With the help of Mr Olzhas Duissenov, our team can understand and assess our product considering the natural specificities of local oil-contaminated land. He emphasised the significance of designing the bioremediation method that will effectively work considering the following limitations:
- local climatic conditions;
- have a broad selectivity for different fractions of hydrocarbons;
- unstructured wastes subjected to bioremediation.
Based on these factors, Mr Olzhas Duissenov suggested testing the RemiDuEt product to assess its performance. Keeping in view this feedback, we highlighted the critical criteria that the RemiDuEt product should meet.
We were closely collaborating with the KMG Systems & Services LLP, specializing in eliminating emergency oil spills (OSR) for the largest oil companies in Kazakhstan. Throughout the project, the company representatives consulted our team regarding the current tendencies in OSR and provided valuable feedback to apply our solution to oil spill cleaning on water. To help us better understand the problem, company representatives also invited us to participate in the volunteering program related to the emergency oil spill response. We happened to learn more about the Caspian Sea flora and fauna and gained practical knowledge about animal rescue in emergency oil spill cases. As KMG Systems&Services is the subsidiary company of JSC “National Company “KazMunayGas”, a leading vertically integrated oil and gas company in Kazakhstan, we also discussed the potential implementation of the RemiDuEt project in the MEOR.After considering the recommendations of experts from the Research and Production Center for Microbiology and Virology, we estimated the preliminary cost of our product at this stage. However, we still lacked the analysis data about the comparison with available methods. In this regard, we asked KMG Systems & Services to assist our team in researching. At this step, they advised us to focus on the following criteria: reducing cost, purity of the product, increasing efficiency in different temperature conditions. For future development, we signed a Memorandum of Cooperation. So after the completion of Giant Jamboree, we will focus on this aspect.
KazMunayGas. (n.d.). Oil and Gas sector. http://www.kmgep.kz/rus/about_kazakhstan/oil_and_gas_sector/
Official Information Source of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan. (2020, May 28). Oil production, gas supply and investment attraction — review of energy sector in Kazakhstan. https://primeminister.kz/en/news/reviews/oil-production-gas-supply-and-investment-attraction-review-of-energy-sector-in-kazakhstan