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Biofilm imaging in porous media by laboratory X-Ray tomography: Combining a non-destructive contrast agent with propagation-based phase-contrast imaging tools


X-ray tomography is a powerful tool giving access to the morphology of biofilms, in 3D porous media, at the mesoscale. Due to the high water content of biofilms, the attenuation coefficient of biofilms and water are very close, hindering the distinction between biofilms and water without the use of contrast agents. Until now, the use of contrast agents such as barium sulfate, silver-coated micro-particles or 1-chloronaphtalene added to the liquid phase allowed imaging the biofilm 3D morphology. However, these contrast agents are not passive and potentially interact with the biofilm when injected into the sample. Here, we use a natural inorganic compound, namely iron sulfate, as a contrast agent progressively bounded in dilute or colloidal form into the EPS matrix during biofilm growth. By combining a very long source-to-detector distance on a X-ray laboratory source with a Lorentzian filter implemented prior to tomographic reconstruction, we substantially increase the contrast between the biofilm and the surrounding liquid, which allows revealing the 3D biofilm morphology. A comparison of this new method with the method proposed by Davit et al (Davit et al., 2011), which uses barium sulfate as a contrast agent to mark the liquid phase was performed. Quantitative evaluations between the methods revealed substantial differences for the volumetric fractions obtained from both methods. Namely, contrast agent-biofilm interactions (e.g. biofilm detachment) occurring during barium sulfate injection caused a reduction of the biofilm volumetric fraction of more than 50% and displacement of biofilm patches elsewhere in the column. Two key advantages of the newly proposed method are that passive addition of iron sulfate maintains the integrity of the biofilm prior to imaging, and that the biofilm itself is marked by the contrast agent, rather than the liquid phase as in other available methods. The iron sulfate method presented can be applied to understand biofilm development and bioclogging mechanisms in porous materials and the obtained biofilm morphology could be an ideal basis for 3D numerical calculations of hydrodynamic conditions to investigate biofilm-flow coupling.

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