, Volume 12, Issue 6, pp 381-386
Date: 09 Aug 2005

Biotic and Abiotic Transformations of Methyl tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) * (6 pp)

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Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) is a fuel additive which is used all over the world. In recent years it has often been found in groundwater, mainly in the USA, but also in Europe. Although MTBE seems to be a minor toxic, it affects the taste and odour of water at concentrations of < 30 µg/L. Although MTBE is often a recalcitrant compound, it is known that many ethers can be degraded by abiotic means. The aim of this study was to examine biotic and abiotic transformations of MTBE with respect to the particular conditions of a contaminated site (former refinery) in Leuna, Germany.


Groundwater samples from wells of a contaminated site were used for aerobic and anaerobic degradation experiments. The abiotic degradation experiment (hydrolysis) was conducted employing an ion-exchange resin and MTBE solutions in distilled water. MTBE, tertiary butyl formate (TBF) and tertiary butyl alcohol (TBA) were measured by a gas chromatograph with flame ionisation detector (FID). Aldehydes and organic acids were respectively analysed by a gas chromatograph with electron capture detector (ECD) and high-performance ion chromatography (HPIC).

Results and Discussion

Under aerobic conditions, MTBE was degraded in laboratory experiments. Only 4 of a total of 30 anaerobic experiments exhibited degradation, and the process was very slow. In no cases were metabolites detected, but a few degradation products (TBF, TBA and formic acid) were found on the site, possibly due to the lower temperatures in groundwater. The abiotic degradation of MTBE with an ion-exchange resin as a catalyst at pH 3.5 was much faster than hydrolysis in diluted hydrochloric acid (pH 1.0).


Although the aerobic degradation of MTBE in the environment seems to be possible, the specific conditions responsible are widely unknown. Successful aerobic degradation only seems to take place if there is a lack of other utilisable compounds. However, MTBE is often accompanied by other fuel compounds on contaminated sites and anaerobic conditions prevail. MTBE is often recalcitrant under anaerobic conditions, at least in the presence of other carbon sources. The abiotic hydrolysis of MTBE seems to be of secondary importance (on site), but it might be possible to enhance it with catalysts.

Recommendation and Outlook

MTBE only seems to be recalcitrant under particular conditions. In some cases, the degradation of MTBE on contaminated sites could be supported by oxygen. Enhanced hydrolysis could also be an alternative.


* The basis of this peer-reviewed paper is a presentation at the 9th FECS Conference on 'Chemistry and Environment', 29 August to 1 September 2004, Bordeaux, France.