Bacteria a possible solution for icky fatbergs

Bacteria a possible solution for icky fatbergs

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One proposed method of dealing with fatbergs is introducing specific bacteria to the sewers

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The coronavirus-related toilet paper shortage is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. It's the shortage that has launched a thousand memes. But there's a side to this toilet paper situation that is definitely no laughing matter.

While some people have a hoard of paper, others have been forced to find alternatives. Paper towels, serviettes and wet wipes have been flying off supermarket shelves. But all this flushing is causing havoc in our sewers. One word: fatbergs.

A fatberg is (maybe don't read this while you're having breakfast) a congealed mass made from fat, oil and grease, combined with non-biodegradable solids.

As we all know, oil and water don't mix, so when grease and fat is washed down our sinks they solidify and stick inside the pipes.

They start to form masses which catch other bits of waste - like wipes (yes, even the supposedly flushable ones), tampons, cotton buds, condoms, nappies, and anything else people flush down the sink or toilet, or drop into drains (a set of false teeth has even been found in one - I'm betting the owner did not want those back).

Over time, layer by layer, these fatbergs grow into a massive, reeking masses, which can weigh tonnes and completely block sewers. While preventing fatbergs seems easy (only flush the three Ps - pee, poop and paper, and don't wash oil and fat down the sink), removing them isn't.

These things are solid, like some sort of disgusting concrete, so removal involves high-pressure water jets, vacuum hoses and a lot of scraping.

But scientists may have a solution: fat-busting bugs.

One proposed method of dealing with fatbergs is introducing specific bacteria to the sewers - bacteria that can "eat" fat.

These microscopic heroes can work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and don't ever complain about working conditions.

However, there is quite a challenge in breeding bugs that can survive and thrive in the chemical slurry that is our sewage. Although sewer cleaning bugs haven't yet solved the problem, scientists have come up with a different way to deal with fatbergs - turning them into biofuel.

The main components of a fatberg are what is called "FOG" (fats, oils, and grease).

When heated, then treated with peroxide, this organic matter is broken down.

It then becomes perfect food for bacteria, which turn the fatberg remnants into methane, which we can use as fuel. Talk about turning trash into treasure!

Dr Mary McMillan is a lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England

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