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Conquering oil spills

To solve the very big ecological and economic problems caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a team of researchers is thinking very small.

Under the auspices of a $10.4 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to support the creation of the multi-institutional Consortium for the Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems, URI engineering Professors Arijit Bose, Geoffrey Bothun and Vinka Oyanedel-Craver are applying the latest in nanoscience to build better oil dispersants.

Their prototype microscopic carbon and silica particles – far smaller than the thickness of a human hair – stick to oil droplets and form emulsions, yet repel each other. As the particles repel, so does the oil hitching a ride.

Smaller and more dispersed oil droplets are easier for oil-loving bacteria to eat. The professors also coat the particles with nutrients such as iron, which oil-eating bacteria view as candy. Their particles also adsorb the most toxic components of oil, reducing their release into the ocean.

“That’s the big idea that we hope to be able to soon accomplish,” Bothun says.

Much rides on the research. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill released more than 4.9 million gallons of oil into the fragile Gulf ecosystem. The spill closed thousands of square meters of ocean to fishing, coated hundreds of meters of sandy beaches in oil and devastated the economies of municipalities dotting the coast. All told, the spill caused billions of dollars in environmental and economic damage.

Now with oil companies pushing farther and farther offshore into deeper and deeper waters, the University team says the risks grow exponentially.

“We are challenging ourselves to think through not just how to deal with an oil spill in the Gulf, but how to deal with an oil spill under any conditions,” Bose says.

Researchers here are exploring how their particles react not only in the lukewarm waters of the Gulf, but also the chilly waters of the Arctic. Researchers also want to know if injecting nano-particles near deep-sea oil wellheads leads to different consequences than injecting them near relatively shallow wells.

And Bose wants to understand whether researchers can design nano-particles that disperse oil and reduce its toxicity. This year he won a second grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to research the topic with the assistance of URI chemistry Assistant Professor Mindy Levine and professors at Brown University and the University of Florida at Gainesville.

Bose says the team has already seen promising results by developing nano-particles that force a change in the shape of oil molecules. The new awkward shape cannot penetrate the cells of living organisms.

The research, Bose says, is an unfortunate necessity.

“My hope is a major oil spill never happens again,” he says. “My expectation, however, is it will be just a matter of when.”

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