This project seeks to develop a class of bio-derived, biodegradable, oil dispersants which resist wetting and spreading on solid substrates such as plants and animals. The intellectual merit of this project is that more safe and effective dispersants are needed to help mitigate the impacts of oil spill disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon incident. The PIs have effectively used funds from the NSF RAPID program to identify a class of dispersants that are macromolecular aggregates of natural cellulose polymers and soy bean lecithin. A clear case is made that these compounds do not allow oil to foul bird feathers, and it is presumed that since they are natural in origin, they would be a safer alternative to the current petrochemically derived dispersants. The PIs have a strong record of expertise in this area, and are uniquely suited to this work. They clearly outline a detailed list of scientific and business-related questions that must be answered to push this product to the marketplace.
The broader impact of discovering more effective and non-toxic oil dispersants is clear. The PIs have a strong record of incorporating others into their work, such as the local junior college students and instructors, some of whom are included as inventors of the disclosed technologies. There is a plan for student and workforce training that will span both the academic laboratory and associated industrial partner operations.
When oils spills occur, dispersants are used to keep the oil at sea until it was microbiologically degraded by natural micro-organisms in sea water. However, dispersants are also good wetting agents that help the oil to spread on coastal substrates like the feathers of seabirds, and this exacerbates the problem of the effect of spilled oil on these unfortunate creatures. Current oil dispersants must be used at least three miles offshore. The object of this research was to design a dispersant that effectively dispersed oil, but could prevent it from sticking or fouling coastal substrates such as birds. Another objective was to design this dispersant with readily available, cost effective ingredients that would generally be recognized as safe for food use. Using commodity materials based on cellulose or food gums, and soy-bean lecithin, we devised anti-depositing dispersants to mitigate the deposition of oil on solid coastal surfaces including soil, sand, plant and wild-life (especially birds). A working prototype of the dispersant has been made and this technology is now a patent pending discovery. The ingredients are not likely to accumulate in the food chain due to their water solubility and high molecular weight (bioconcentration potential is low). They are nontoxic to fish and aquatic organisms on an acute basis. They are expected to slowly biodegrade in the aquatic environment. They are also available in large quantities and are relatively inexpensive. Commercial acceptance of this technology will mean that our coasts, and perhaps our rivers and lakes will be able to better resist the hazards of spilled oil.