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Surprising Science

Oil Spills Are Destructive — the Clean Up Process Shouldn’t Be

Researchers have developed a green solution to help clean up oil spills.

Oil spills from the devastating BP incident to the recent Santa Barbara County incident in May, where some 21,000 gallons of oil made its way into the Pacific Ocean, continue to remind us that our efforts to contain such disasters are lacking. However, a group of researchers write in a recent study in Science Advances that they believe they’ve found a green solution to cleaning up these spills.

For some oil spills, a remedy known as a “chemical herder” is used to contain and control it. It’s made up of a special type of amphiphile, which is sprayed around the spill on the water. It lowers the surface tension of the water, so that the oil contracts, making it easy to burn-up the spill. However, it’s silicone-based — non-biodegradable — and remains in the ocean’s ecosystem long after the cleanup is over. Though, it’s not known exactly how this chemical impacts marine life.

The researchers write on their alternative:

“We architect an eco-friendly, sacrificial, and effective green herder derived from the plant-based small-molecule phytol, which is abundant in the marine environment, as an alternative to the current chemical herders.”

The researchers tested the effects of this organic compound against the silicone-based chemical herder on a small-scale oil spill in trays of water 2cm deep with varying conditions relating to the temperature and salinity of the water. They noted that the phytol herders were just as efficient as the silicone-based ones.

What’s more, the researchers found “that phytol-based green herders completely hydrolyze in a month.”

Matthew C. Nisbet, an associate professor at Northeastern University, believes before the BP oil spill, the public wasn’t as concerned about environmental protections. Since then, the conversation has changed quite a bit:

Read the full study on Science Advances.

Photo Credit: Pool/ Getty Images


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