Corrosion of massive concrete structures is a costly and environmentally dangerous problem. Many low level waste disposal vaults, both above and below ground, are constructed of concrete. When the integrity of these structures is compromised, potential for soil and water contamination is significantly increased. There are literally thousands of massive concrete structures within the U.S. infrastructure that are in a serious state of disrepair due to corrosion. One potential contributing agent to the destruction of concrete structures is microbially-influenced degradation (MID). MID occurs when microorganisms in the environment produce mineral or organic acids that dissolve or disintegrate the cement matrix. Three groups of bacteria are known to create conditions that are conducive to destroying concrete integrity. They are sulfur oxidizing bacteria, nitrifying bacteria, and heterotrophic bacteria.
Research is being conducted at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory to assess the extent of naturally occurring microbially influenced degradation (MID) and its contribution to the deterioration of massive concrete structures. The preliminary steps to understanding the extent of MID, require assessing the microbial communities present on degrading concrete surfaces. Ultimately such information can be used to develop guidelines for preventive or corrective treatments for MID and aid in formulation of new materials to resist corrosion. An environmental study was conducted to determine the presence and activity of potential MID bacteria on degrading concrete surfaces of massive concrete structures. Scanning electron microscopy detected bacteria on the surfaces of concrete structures such as bridges and dams, where corrosion was evident. Enumeration of sulfur oxidizing thiobacilli and nitrogen oxidizing Nitrosomonas sp. and Nitrobacter sp. from surface samples was conducted. Bacterial community composition varied between sampling locations, and generally the presence of either sulfur oxidizers or nitrifiers dominated, although instances of both types of bacteria occurring together were encountered. No clear correlation between bacterial numbers and degree of degradation was exhibited.