Anaerobic biodegradation of citric acid in the presence of Ni and U at alkaline pH; impact on metal fate and speciation

Natalie Byrd, Jonathan R. Lloyd, Luke T. Townsend, Joe S. Small, Frank Taylor, Heath Bagshaw, Christopher Boothman, Ilya Strashnov, Katherine Morris

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Citrate is a key decontaminant used in the nuclear industry and here we explore its biogeochemical fate in the presence of Ni2+ and U(vi)O22+ under conditions relevant to low level radioactive waste (LLW) disposal. Anaerobic microcosm experiments were performed under nitrate- and sulfate-reducing conditions at between pH 9 and 10. Citrate (1 mM) was supplied as both an electron donor and a potential metal ion complexant. Incubation experiments with citrate, inoculated with nitrate- or sulfate-reducing microbial consortia, were challenged with three different concentrations of Ni: 0.01, 0.1 or 1 mM, or U: 0.005, 0.05, or 0.5 mM. The nitrate- and sulfate-reducing inocula were enriched from well characterised alkaline sediments obtained from high pH lime-workings. A multi-technique approach was adopted to characterise the aqueous geochemistry, solid phase mineralogy, and bacterial communities in each incubation system. In the 0.01 mM Ni systems citrate underwent full biodegradation under both nitrate and sulfate-reducing conditions in less than 15 days. In the sulfate-reducing experiments, 50% of the added 0.01 mM Ni(aq) was removed from solution and black solids formed; SEM and TEM analysis suggested that these were Ni-sulfides. For the higher Ni concentration incubations, no changes were observed in the nitrate-amended experiments. In the sulfate-amended experiments only citrate fermentation was observed, likely because elevated levels of Ni were toxic to nitrate- and sulfate-reducing bacteria in the inocula. Interestingly, although fermentative bacteria were key citrate degraders in the sulfate-amended experiments they did not dominate in the nitrate-amended experiments presumably due to competition from other microbes. In the U experiments, citrate degradation took place over 55 days in all systems except the 0.5 mM U/nitrate-amended incubations. In all U/sulfate-amended experiments, a dark-coloured precipitate formed and XAS analysis indicated that these solids contained reduced U(iv) with EXAFS suggesting that non-crystalline U(iv)-phosphate phases dominated. Microbial community analysis by 16S rRNA gene sequencing of endpoint samples identified fermenters and nitrate- and sulfate-reducing bacteria in the relevant incubations. Overall, findings suggest microbial degradation of citrate occurs under repository relevant conditions with Ni (at 0.01-0.1 mM) and U (at 0.005-0.5 mM) but with an inhibitory effect particularly at elevated Ni concentrations. Significantly, the work suggests that under anaerobic conditions relevant to LLW disposal, citrate undergoes biodegradation leading to the development of poorly soluble Ni sulfides and/or bioreduction of U(vi) to poorly soluble U(iv) phases. This suggests that both removal of citrate, and retention of Ni and U can occur in these environments and this information can be used to further inform development of safety cases for radioactive waste disposal.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science. Advances
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jul 2023


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