Biofilm activity, behaviour and our ability to control biofilms depends to a large extent on mass transfer phenomena in the biofilm, at the biofilm-liquid interface and in the bulk liquid. Biofilms respond to changing mass transfer conditions by adjusting morphology, thereby optimising the exchange of matter with their surroundings. Observing biofilm morphology and mass transfer in relevant fluid dynamic conditions can therefore yield essential information to understand and model biofilm behaviour. Lack of such knowledge, as the case is with regards to biofilm behaviour in various porous media, such as sandstone reservoirs, limits our ability to predict biofilm effects. A transparent porous media replica of a sandstone reservoir with cybernetic image processing has been designed to study biofilm related transport phenomena in porous media.
The porous medium was inoculated with a mixed bacterial culture and fed a sterile nutrient solution in a once through flow mode. The biofilm was observed by microscopy with automated image analysis. This novel integrated software/hardware cybernetic design allows near real-time, essentially simultaneous, surveillance of several critical sites in the porous network and facilitates selective recording and compilation of observations as a function of the biological activity at each particular site. Biofilm biomass distribution in space and time (morphology and morphological changes) are thereby recorded at a representative selection of sites in the porous structure. Local in-pore flow velocity measurements were carried out by measuring the velocity of suspended particulate matter such as detached cells or clusters of cells. The influence of biofilm morphology on convective mass transport could thereby be observed and recorded. This effect, on a meso scale, was also monitored by sensitive, automated pressure drop measurements across the porous medium cell. Important observations so far include:
• Bioweb; the biofilm morphology in porous media is very different from the “classical film”, as it appears more like a spider web where each strand varies in size and shape.
• The biofilm maintains a large surface area and minimal biofilm depth, thereby minimising mass transfer resistance between the fluid and the biofilm phase, under the conditions tested.
• The biofilm influences the convective flow through pores both locally within pores and effecting the flow distribution between pores. Pores with high initial permeability thereby become less permeable, diverting more flow to less permeable zones in the porous matrix. Large variations in this picture were observed, demonstrating the need for a sophisticated experimental apparatus with high sampling capacity to investigate such an intricate system.
The observed biofilm behaviour in porous media has important theoretical and practical implications. Flow diversion and permeability effects are of immediate practical importance, improving the prospects for biological treatment of reservoirs. The information obtained in this study will be applied in mathematical simulations of ground water reservoirs, bioremediation and biological enhanced oil recovery.