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The question isn’t will there be another oil spill. The question is how will we clean it up.

Deep Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Sometimes it takes a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to spur new solutions to world problems. At URI, we take our charge to help find those solutions seriously. So it’s no surprise that URI chemical engineering professors Arijit Bose and Geoffrey Bothun received a $560,000 grant to study how environmentally friendly nanoparticles could replace chemical dispersants to stabilize oil droplets in seawater.

Professor Bose’s team is developing nanoparticles that will change the shape of the toxic molecules, so that they can no longer penetrate the cells of living organisms – a development that could help decimate the harmful effects of oil spills on marine life.

The goal of any dispersant is to keep the oil within the water column, under the surface, so that naturally occurring ocean bacteria can eat it. The problem with chemical dispersants, is that they can migrate away from the oil, allowing the oil to rise to the surface where the lighter components of oil evaporate and leave behind larger, heavy components that cause significant damage to the ecosystem and food chain when they reach the shore.

Professor Bose is studying how carbon-based nanoparticles can ensure that the droplets do not coalesce and become too big for the bacterial microbes to feed upon. “Carbon is biofriendly and can absorb toxic aromatic hydrocarbons from the oil, preventing these toxic components from entering the water,” he said. The microbes like oil droplets of about 100 microns in size, and the carbon-based nanoparticles help keep them “at the right size chunk for the microbes to eat.”

Bothun’s work is a little different. He’s using porous silica nanoparticles that are loaded with nutrients that the ocean bacteria need to survive. “It’s like putting a little candy on the particles to attract the microbes,” he said. When these particles are used as a dispersant, the candy is at the interface between oil and water, where the bacteria want to be. “This will enhance the growth of the microbes and their desire to eat the oil.”

Thanks to another $1.25 million grant, Bose is also teaming up with URI Chemistry Assistant Professor Mindy Levine and professors at Brown University and the University of Florida to tackle a third possible use of nanoparticles on oil spills. His team is hoping to develop nanoparticles that force a change in the shape of the toxic molecules in the oil, so that they can no longer penetrate the cells of living organisms – a development that could help decimate the harmful effects of oil spills on marine life.

Through Bose and Bothun’s research, URI is part of a much larger consortium, led by Tulane University, of 42 scientists from 21 universities. The consortium funding, as well as the recent grants to Bose and his co-investigators, is provided by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, established by oil company BP, to administer a $500 million fund for independent research into the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and how to better deal with future spills.

Their research, Bose says, is an unfortunate necessity. “My hope is a major oil spill never happens again,” he says. “My expectation, however, is it is just a matter of when.” When it does, URI will at the forefront of emerging solutions.

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