An electrokinetic technique has been developed as a means of in situ remediation of soils, sludges, and sediments that are contaminated with heavy metals. Examples of common metal contaminants that can be removed by this technique include cadmium, chromium, zinc, lead, mercury, and radionuclides. Some organic contaminants can also be removed by this technique.

In the electrokinetic technique, a low-intensity direct current is applied between electrodes that have been implanted in the ground on each side of a contaminated soil mass. The electric current causes electro-osmosis and migration of ions, thereby moving aqueous-phase subsurface contaminants from one electrode to the other. The half reaction at the anode yields H+, thereby generating an acid front that travels from the anode toward the cathode. As this acid front passes through a given location, the local increase in acidity increases the solubility of cations that were previously adsorbed on soil particles. Ions are transported towards one electrode or the other — which one depending on their respective electric charges.

Upon arrival at the electrodes, the ionic contaminants can be allowed to become deposited on the electrodes or can be extracted to a recovery system. Surfactants and other reagents can be introduced at the electrodes to enhance rates of removal of contaminants. Placements of electrodes and concentrations and rates of pumping of reagents can be adjusted to maximize efficiency.

The basic concept of electrokinetic treatment of soil is not new. What is new here are some of the details of application and the utilization of this technique as an alternative to other techniques (e.g., flushing or bioremediation) that are not suitable for treating soils of low hydraulic conductivity. Another novel aspect is the use of this technique as a less expensive alternative to excavation: The cost advantage over excavation is especially large in settings in which contaminated soil lies near and/or under industrial buildings and therefore excavation would be made even more expensive by the need to prevent damage to numerous underground pipes and cables.

This work was done by Jacqueline Quinn of Kennedy Space Center and Christian A. Clausen III, Cherie Geiger, and Debra Reinhart of the University of Central Florida. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at under the Physical Sciences category.