As Hurricane Isaac pounded the Gulf Coast this past week, many of us watched with baited breath, hoping the destruction would be minimal. Many areas were flooded and thousands evacuated only to return to badly damaged homes. For those living right on the coast, Isaac served as a painful reminder of yet another disaster, this one caused by human hands.
According to Greenpeace, oil is washing up along the Gulf Coast in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, churned up by Hurricane Isaac. Investigators found hundreds of tar balls, remnants of the 2010 BP oil spill, beached on the sands of East and West Ship Island, both of which are part of the Gulf National Seashore.
This drifting oil serves as a powerful reminder that despite BP’s attempts at clean-up and restoration, the Gulf Coast has been permanently poisoned, and it’s only a matter of time before we see another massive oil spill. Chemical dispersants, which were used against the EPA’s orders, did nothing to degrade the crude, but scientists hope that the development of a new, non-toxic dispersant will be more effective in the future.
At the recent 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, a team of researchers presented a promising new dispersant made from ingredients in peanut butter, chocolate and ice cream. Using the principles behind simple laundry detergents, these edible ingredients have the power to both break up oil slicks and keep oil from sticking to the feathers of birds.
“Other scientists are working on new oil dispersants and absorbents, but nothing that’s quite like ours,” said said Lisa K. Kemp, Ph.D., who presented the study. “It not only breaks up oil but prevents the deposition of oil on birds and other objects, like the ingredients in laundry detergent keep grease from redepositing on clothing in the rinse cycle. Birds can sit in slicks of the dispersed oil, they can dive through it and take off and flap their wings, and the oil will fall off.”
This benign dispersant would have multiple advantages over the poisonous chemical Corexit, which damages birds’ natural waterproofing effect, leaving them less buoyant and more susceptible to hypothermia. Another important advantage, Kemp noted, is the ease of quickly obtaining large amounts of ingredients, even ton quantities, for making the dispersant at reasonable cost. Peanut butter, chocolate and whipped cream are in constant production all over the world, and are far less expensive than chemical alternatives. Agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard could keep small amounts on hand for first response, with larger quantities being quickly made as necessary.
Encouraged by initial results, Kemp’s research team has moved the edible material from concept to a prototype dispersant suitable for testing on actual oil spills. Who knows? With Obama’s recent approval of Arctic drilling, they may get a chance to test it out sooner than they think.
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