Oil spills are damaging to the environment, expensive to clean up and potentially dangerous. In 2016, approximately 6,000 tons of oil were spilled. Although we’ve been getting better — in 1979, 636,000 tons were lost in spills — oil spills remain a serious problem today.
Part of the reason they’re such an issue is oil’s chemical make-up remains a mystery, as does how it changes when it comes into contact with seawater and sunlight. One team of scientists, though, has developed a new tool for assessing oil spills that will likely improve our understanding of them.
New Tool to Fight Oil Spills
Researchers at Florida International University’s Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment developed an impressive new tool that will give scientists a much closer look at oil at the molecular level. In fact, it will bump up the molecules they’ll be able to see by six-fold, according to Paolo Benigni, the lead study author and a Ph.D. candidate in FIU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
The new tool will give officials access to more plentiful and more accurate information about oil spills, which could change how they go about cleaning them up. According to the authors of the study, this new information could enable researchers to predict:
- The toxicity of spilled oil
- How long that oil might persist in the environment
- How far it could travel
The discovery also allows researchers to more easily examine the mass, shape and size of molecules at the same time. Earlier technologies mainly limited scientists to observing just the size of a molecule.
The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation funded the study, and the journal Environmental Science & Technology recently published its findings. Analytical Chemistry and Journal of Visualized Experiments published preliminary results from the study.
The Impact of Oil Spills
Oil spills have a disastrous effect on marine environments. They can harm marine animals that ingest or come into external contact with the oil. It can smother small creatures and coat the fur or feathers of larger animals, diminishing their ability to maintain their body temperature.
Spilled oils can also kill off plant life. When one part of an ecosystem is harmed, it may damage the ecosystem as a whole if the function of that animal or plant is no longer performed.
In addition to its effect on animal and plant life, oil can harm people by contaminating their water sources and finding its way into the food they get from the ocean. Those who live near an oil spill location may also end up breathing polluted air.
Spills can also have serious economic consequences, because they are expensive to clean up and can disrupt industries such as fishing and tourism as well as import and export activities. For people and regions that rely on these industries, this can be especially damaging.
Technology Takes on the Oil Spill
The findings of the team of FIU researchers will change how we assess oil spills and may also impact how we respond to them. It will provide officials with a greater understanding of how oil molecules act during a spill and allow them to more accurately predict what will happen during such an incident. As we learn more about oil spills, we may discover things that cause us to change how we prevent them, clean them up and test water quality in oilfields.
This research isn’t just applicable to oil spills, although they are one of the most common accidents. The new technique could also be used to examine other environmental contaminants both in water and on land. Findings from these investigations could lead to improvements in our understanding of these other substances and change the way we react to them as well.
Oil spills are damaging to the environment, economy and human health, so any improvement in how we prevent and clean them up is a win for everybody. This new tool will give researchers a deeper understanding of how oil acts during a spill, allowing them to predict what will happen during an incident and better decide how to respond.
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