A CURTIN University Department of Chemical Engineering study may help improve current large-scale oil cleanup techniques.
The study was undertaken to look at the floatability of water on the surface of oil and showed that in certain conditions water droplets are able to float on top of oil.
One of the studies authors Dr Chi Phan says he and his fellow researchers were surprised by the unexpected result even though the underlying physics are well known.
“Now everybody looks at [the results] and says it is quite expected but we didn’t really have any expectations,” he says.
“The physics itself is nothing new...but the application in this case is quite interesting because we somehow have water droplets that are floating on oil.”
Dr Phan says one of the potential outcomes of the research is an improvement in the effectiveness of oil cleanup technologies.
When a spill occurs at sea the oil leaks out and creates a millimeter thick slick that floats on top of the water spreading out over the ocean.
Current methods for oil spill cleanup include containment and removal, burning, the use of dispersants to break up the oil along with other methods of varying success
Dispersants are one of the most used methods of cleanup, for example in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill BP used over three million liters of dispersant.
Dr Phan says the research may be able to boost cleanup efforts by improving on microbial degredation of the oil.
“In the natural environment we have some micro-organisms that love to eat oil,” he says.
“But in order to grow fast these organisms need to have nutrients and in the open ocean you can’t really supply them with those nutrients.”
By spraying small water droplets on top of the oil spill to improve aerobic biodegredation the micro-organisms will be able to function better and help clean up spills more efficiently.
This method may allow more controlled and contained clean ups and will prevent the use of dispersants because of the possible toxic, long-term environmental implications.
“Currently when we use the dispersant we just throw it into the ocean and let the wind and the waves do the job,” Dr Phan says.
“But in this case we have more control, we can use a certain amount of nutrient and a certain amount of bacteria in a more controlled way.”
Dr Phan says that while this technology isn’t available yet the research shows it is fundamentally possible.