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How A Plant-Based Molecule Can Make Oil Spill Cleanup Greener

A newly engineered biodegradable molecule is as effective as silicone-based oil herders in cleaning up oil spills.

In an ideal world, we wouldn't need to consider the effects our oil spill cleanups have. But the fact of the matter is that oil spills happen, and we have to consider the ecological impacts cleaning these disasters can have.

Scientists have discovered a biodegradable molecule capable of clearing up crude oil as effectively as the silicone-based agents currently used. The difference is this molecule could lead to much more eco-friendly oil cleanups.

BP Oil Spill controlled burn. Source: Deepwater Horizon Response/Flickr BP Oil Spill controlled burn.
Source: Deepwater Horizon Response/Flickr

The small molecule is based in phytol, a component of chlorophyll. The layer of seawater beneath the ocean’s surface is rife with naturally occurring phytol, as it is a part of chlorophyll often released into water by marine plants. By using a plant-based molecule familiar to the ocean, cleaning up oil spills can help the ocean instead of damaging it further.

Presently, silicone-based chemicals “herd” spilled oil by thickening its consistency, forming a dense mass that is then controllably burned in a method called in situ burning. This is an effective way to reduce oil contamination to marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, the silicone-based chemical agents needed to clean up the spill are non-biodegradable and can live in the ocean for years. The newly engineered phytol-based oil herder, on the other hand, breaks down within a month, according to preliminary studies.

Deeksha Gupta, the lead author on the study published in Science Advances Magazine, worked with scientists from Tulane University and The City College of the City University of New York to specifically engineer a “green” alternative to the non-biodegradable chemical agents.

In initial experiments, the phytol-based compound works in the same way the silicone-based chemicals do and the results were similar. It thickened oil by 1000 percent, which is comparable to other oil-herding agents, and its efficacy increased as water temperature rose, like silicone-based chemicals.

Scaling up production is the next step for the researchers in order to see how the phytol-based molecule impacts marine life.

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