Effects of Gulf spill dispersant unknown

U. BUFFALO (US) — After the failure of the Deepwater Horizon oil well last spring, nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant were released into the Gulf of Mexico.

While preliminary reports suggest that it successfully dispersed much of the oil, the long-term effect of such a massive volume of dispersant on ecosystems, wildlife, and humans remains to be seen.

“There is very little published research on the fundamental interactions between crude oil and dispersant,” says Marina Tsianou, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University at Buffalo.

Tsianou will use macromolecules, nanoparticles, and inorganic molecules as building blocks for high-end, multifunctional materialsis to design more environmentally friendly oil dispersants, including those based on natural, mineral-based ingredients

“When we study these surface interactions, we can learn how to control hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity—their affinity, or lack of affinity, for crude oil—as well as develop novel mechanisms to optimize their properties,” she says.

Tsianou will also explore the suitability of alternative solvents and surfactants, such as those found in processed foods, for some dispersant formulations, as well as mineral particles that could serve as environmentally friendly surface active agents.

“We will take into consideration the different compositions that oil has, depending on its origin and the time elapsed since its release,” she says.

“Oil that comes from Alaska has a different composition than oil drilled from the Gulf of Mexico or the Middle East.”

She and colleagues will look at how mechanical disturbances, such as those caused by hurricanes and storms, affect the way that dispersant interacts with oil.

They also will study how local environmental conditions, such as those on the Great Lakes where, she points out, smaller-scale spills also occur, might influence how dispersants function and the long-term impact they might have on local wildlife and shorelines.

“If we make a more efficient dispersant, then we can use far less of it,” says Tsianou. “Millions of gallons of anything, even a very benign material, is a lot to release into the environment.”

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