Major oil spills, such as the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, are distressingly toxic events, conjuring up nightmarish images of oil-soaked birds, marine life and beaches.
What’s less well-known is that such oil spills are almost impossible to control. Containment strategies work poorly in rough or icy seas, and dispersant chemicals – applied to breakdown the oil and trap droplets inside the water – simply use additional toxic material to push the oil down to the seabed and suffocate deeper marine life. It’s estimated that BP only managed to ‘clean’ 25% of the oil its Deepwater Horizon ship spilled into the ocean.
George John, Professor of Chemistry at City College of New York, has created what may be a first-step solution to these problems. He led the team that derived the first-ever biodegradable ‘herding’ agent, a substance drawn from a plant-based molecule common to the marine environment that can be added to oil slicks to pull them together for easier collection.
John said the substance was developed as an alternative to current offerings, which are “chemically stable, non-biodegradable, and hence remain in the marine ecosystem for years.”
The Professor’s research has long centred on economical and green technologies for a sustainable future, using sugars and fatty acids to develop items including antibacterial paints and battery components.