The chemical solutions used to gather and collect oil from the surface of the ocean have all been involving non-biodegradable silicon-based polymers, which is something that remains chemically stabile and stays in the marine environment for years.
What has happened now, is that scientists at the City College of New York have discovered a way to collect oil spill slicks with biodegradable, organic herding agents instead.
The new agent is made by deriving a plant-based, small molecule called phytol, which is already abundant in the marine wildlife environment. Charles Maldarelli, a professor of chemical engineering in CCNY’s Benjamin Levich Institute for Physico-Chemical Hydrodynamics were one of the study participants, and he explains their take on the problem: “Understanding the interfacial behavior is crucial to design the next generation eco-friendly herding agents.”
Maldarelli refers to how water surface tension is reduced when surfactants, surface-active molecules, are added to seawater. When combined with oil spills, as in added to the outer edges of the slick, these surfactants start contracting and thickening the oil slick, or in other cases they push the slicks towards each other. This makes it a lot easier to collect the oil or sometimes burn it on the spot.
Considering the constantly high risks of drilling for oil in sensitive marine environments, as well as shipping the “black gold” overseas in enormous oil-tankers, facing potential storms, accidents or malfunctions with disastrous consequences, there is for sure a huge need for solutions that do not clean up one mess only to leave another one in its place.
Using biodegradable agents, that can already even be found in the same marine environment where they will be put to work, is a tremendous improvement to the decontamination efforts that are still in such high demand. Although things start to look promising, as it finally seems like we’ll be witnessing the end of the oil-dominated era of this planet, with all the new global collaboration agreements seeing the light of the day, all aiming to completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels from the everyday lives of individuals and companies alike.
The original study was published in the journal Science Advances in the June issue, and the research team was led by chemist George John and also included Deeksha Gupta, a postdoctoral student who is now working with the Royal Society of Chemistry, together with Vijay John of Tulane University.