University of Rhode Island professor Arijit Bose and associate professor Geoff Bothun, both chemical engineers, are working on collaborative research projects on potential new oil dispersants, funded by more than $1.4 million in grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and other sources.
Bose and Bothun are part of the Consortium for Molecular Engineering of Dispersant Systems. Bose has been on the issue since it, literally, exploded with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 that spewed 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The dispersant Corexit was used to break up the oil so it could be more naturally consumed by oil-eating bacteria before landing on shore.
Since Corexit was used, some Gulf Coast residents have reported a variety of illnesses, including skin problems, headaches, dizziness and seizures. The results of a study reported in the February 2013 issue of scientific journal Environmental Pollution found that “… when Corexit 9500A and oil are mixed, toxicity increases 52 fold. Results suggest underestimation of increased toxicity due to Corexit application.”
Bose said that, “As soon as the oil spill happened, the National Science Foundation put out a call for rapid grants of $50,000 and a colleague of mine and I wrote a proposal.” They were awarded a grant and “started looking at alternative dispersants a few months after the spill.”
With the $1.4 million in two overlapping, three-year grants from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, Bose is continuing research on dispersants using small particles, or nanoparticles, of carbon black, a chemical produced by Cabot Corp. in Massachusetts, where he did research during a sabbatical from URI. Carbon black is used in such applications as mascara. Carbon black is the soot that comes from a candle when it’s burned.
“We are looking at something conceptually different than Corexit,” said Bose. “Corexit uses soap molecules to emulsify the oil. If you take oil and water and mix it, the oil will separate from the water. But if you add a little bit of soap to the water and shake it, what will happen is it will form little droplets of oil – emulsification. That’s what Corexit did. The idea is that the oil-eating bacteria would grab hold of these little droplets of oil and consume them so it wouldn’t come up to the surface.”