Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL researchers contribute to R&D 100 technology

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Aug. 6, 1996 — Tiny critters, living deep in the soil and invisible to the naked eye, are becoming one of the Department of Energy's (DOE) biggest allies in efforts to clean up contaminated sites.

The husband-wife team of Tommy Phelps and Susan Pfiffner, a research scientist and a post-doctorate, respectively, in the Environmental Sciences Division at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), were major contributors to this new technology that received one of the coveted R&D 100 awards issued annually by R&D Magazine. DOE's Westinghouse Savannah River Technology Center in Aiken, S.C., was the principal developer.

The technology, called PHOSter, was initiated to gain a basic understanding of microorganisms in subsurface soils and their potential for assisting in the cleanup of organic chemicals. PHOSter is named for phosphorus, a critical nutrient for microorganisms.

"This technology involves making these organisms abundant and working on our behalf to help mend some of the environmental damage that has been caused over the decades," Phelps said. "We've focused on a DOE problem and are using bioremediation to solve it, looking at what we need to do to speed up the process, help it along, control it and find wider applications."

With PHOSter technology, degradation time has been reduced by years or decades, especially if longer cleanup periods were anticipated, and the added cost of implementation is only about 8 percent. PHOSter is a premier example of the prevailing emphasis on "green" or sound remediation methods.

Phelps received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology from Indiana University and a master's in microbiology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He received his doctorate in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin.

In addition to his position at ORNL, Phelps is a research associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee.

Pfiffner received a bachelor's degree in natural science from the University of Tulsa and a master's in microbiology from the University of Oklahoma - Norman. She received her doctorate in biological science from Florida State University.

Phelps and Pfiffner reside in West Knox County.

The basic research leading to the invention was supported by the Subsurface Science Program of DOE's Office of Energy Research and the ORNL post-doctoral research associate program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and ORNL. The development and application of PHOSter was funded by the Office of Science and Technology, within DOE's Office of Environmental Management.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.