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URI researchers developing tiny weapons to combat big oil spills

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

Engineers, chemists finding success using nanoparticles to clean spills

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 17, 2014 -- More than 47,000 people, 9,700 ships and 127 planes spent months mopping up oil released during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet four years later, the tools to fight offshore oil spills remain remarkably rudimentary. Now a team of University of Rhode Island engineering and chemistry professors is demonstrating novel approaches that could change the way oil spills are battled.

The approach the scientists are using relies on nanoparticles, each about 100 times thinner than a human hair. To study how these tiny particles can clean up oil, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative has awarded grants totaling nearly $1.4 million to engineering professors Arijit Bose, Geoffrey Bothun and Vinka Oyanedel-Craver, along with chemistry professor Mindy Levine and Metcalf Institute Executive Director Sunshine Menezes.

“On the downside, the Deepwater Horizon spill happened,” Bothun said. “On the upside, it motivated a lot of engineers and scientists to come up with new ways to fight oil spills.”

The researchers are taking complementary approaches to stop oil from forming globs that threaten wildlife and wash up on beaches. To emulsify the oil (break it into small droplets) and make it attractive to oil-eating microorganisms, Bothun has turned to silica, and Bose and Levine to carbon black.

Bothun’s research seeks to turn off-the-shelf products into oil spill cleaners. He and his team of students turned to nanoparticles of benign silica (sand) and government-approved surfactants, which force oil to emulsify.

Teaming up with researchers at the University of Maryland and Texas A&M International University, Bothun’s group found that some nanoparticles and surfactants work well alone or in combination with traditional dispersants. The team hopes that when loaded with nutrients, the compounds stop oil from forming slicks on the surface of the ocean and attract microorganisms that eat oil.

Bose and Levine want to turn carbon black – a material created by the incomplete combustion of petroleum products -- into the go-to dispersant. Generally considered safe, the particles emulsify oil, absorb toxic polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons, and are widely available and inexpensive.

Bose started researching the potential of carbon black to clean up oil while on sabbatical at Cabot Corp., one of the world’s largest producers of carbon black. In partnership with researchers there and at Tulane University, Bose discovered carbon black is a powerful oil emulsifier.

“Nobody has used carbon black in this way,” Bose says. “It seemed like a cool idea because it’s so widely available.”

While Bose studies the engineering side of carbon black, Levine and her students are working to identify the most efficient method to manipulate molecules to attract oil and break down its toxicants.

“We’re using organic chemistry reactions to change the toxic molecules in the oil to nontoxic molecules,” Levine says.

Using oil samples from real oil spills, Levine has tested her concept and found success. And she’s excited about the interdisciplinary collaboration that began through the Rhode Island Consortium for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.

By working together, the professors say their approaches could be tweaked to assist with oil spills occurring in extremely cold water. That potential has taken on new urgency as oil companies express interest in drilling in the Arctic.

“The Gulf of Mexico spill that started this research was just one spill,” Bothun says. “Other spills are going to happen. Whether they’re close to us or not, we’re going to have to come up with ways to minimize the damage.”

Pictured above
URI engineering professors Geoff Bothun and Arijit Bose pose in the lab where they are developing new technologies for cleaning up oil spills. (Photo by Chris Barrett)