NYU (US)—What if cleaning up the oil in the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t a matter of choosing between harsh chemical dispersants, labor-intensive skimming, and potentially dangerous burns? Nature may have already provided the ideal weapons: biosurfactants.

These organic compounds are produced in nature for the exact purpose of oil dispersion and remediation. Formed by microbes such as yeast, bacteria, and fungi, biosurfactants are amphiphilic compounds—meaning they attract both lipids (such as oil) and water—and serve to reduce the surface tension between the two substances.

This facilitates the breakdown and dispersal of lipid molecules into smaller droplets.

Biosurfactants work in tandem with naturally occurring marine organisms—already present in sufficient quantity in the Gulf—which utilize the oil droplets as food, converting them into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.

Richard Gross, professor of chemical and biological science at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, proposes introducing biosurfactants in sufficient quantity to assist these organisms in quickly converting the oil from the Deep Horizon spill.

Adapting nature’s approach to this disaster offers distinct advantages over current methods of remediation, according to Gross. “Unlike synthetic chemical dispersants, biosurfactants were designed by nature to provide marine microbes with a survival advantage in oil-rich environments,” he explains.

Physical cleaning methods, including skimmers, vacuums, and in situ burning, are limited by environmental factors, and chemical cleaning methods may have grave environmental repercussions for marine life.

Biosurfactants are well accepted by nature and pose no threat to marine ecosystems.

The first challenge will be to determine biosurfactant compositions that can function most efficiently to disperse the massive quantities of oil waste under a range of marine conditions that include variations in the Gulf temperature and oil compositions.

The second challenge is to encourage natural oil-degrading marine organism at the spill site to attach to the oil droplets formed by the biosurfactants and then use the oil as a food source.

The third is to determine that all these things occur quickly to protect the delicate balance present in marine ecosystems.

Gross estimates a 12-month project would cost $500,000 and that a first-generation product could be delivered within six months. He envisions assembling a team of scientists and engineers to optimize biosurfactants to speed their performance and determine which compounds provide an optimal environment for oil-degrading microorganisms.

The team would also develop a rapid fermentation process to produce the compounds at adequate scale for current needs and eventual stockpiling for future spills.

“Cleaning up a major oil spill frequently takes years, so there will be many opportunities to employ this technology in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere,” Gross says.

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