The Environmental Chemical Sciences Program in the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation supports Professor Matthew Tarr of the University of New Orleans to study the effects of sunlight, photooxidant particles, and dispersants on crude oil in seawater, using a variety of analytical methods under different, environmentally relevant conditions. The goal of this work is to understand the photochemical transformation of Deepwater Horizon oil as a function of irradiation time, dispersant loading, and the presence or absence of photocatalysts. This work will help to understand the fate of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, improve the predictive power of different models used in preparing for future spills, and provide greater overall insight into the photochemical processes affecting crude oil in marine systems.
Broader impacts of this research are centered in the societal benefit of learning, at the molecular level, the fate of crude oil after exposure to the harsh conditions present in salt water with light exposure. Crude oil inside a bore well, which has been preserved for millions of years in the dark, has a very different chemical composition almost immediately upon reaching the surface of the ocean after a spill. This research will provide detailed information about the changes in the general composition of the oil as well as specific changes to the structures of the major components that take place after excitation from visible and ultra-violet light from the sun. This work is critical to our understanding and prevention of environmental damage from aquatic oil spills such as Deepwater Horizon. Professor Tarr's research group will actively engage high school students and teachers, including underrepresented groups, in this research program.