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April 18, 2016

Oil spill cleanups: Finding the right chemistry

Research team uses Deepwater Horizon samples to further refine impact of sunlight and dispersants, improve cleanup models

Sunlight plays a key role in the natural degradation of oil after a spill, oxygenating the oil so it dissolves in seawater and comes in contact with microbes that will break it down. But, under certain conditions, sunlight can have negative effects, too. With continued exposure, the energy in sunlight drives chemical reactions that transform liquid oil into a sludge that has a consistency similar to peanut butter: thick, pasty and sticky.

Supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), analytical chemist Matthew Tarr and his team at the University of New Orleans are using samples from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to learn more about how crude oil breaks down in seawater when it's exposed to sunlight and dispersants. The researchers' goal is to help refine the computer models that responders use to make cleanup plans. The research also adds to everyone's overall understanding and helps mitigate environmental damage from future oil spills.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1111525, Photochemistry of Petroleum from the Deepwater Horizon: Products, Mechanisms and Toxicity.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.