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Gulf Oil Spill Research

Research Summary

In light of the massive, 780,000 cubic meters of crude oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during 2010, the most important question is: what are the long-term consequences of that spill on the Gulf ecosystem?  We know what happened; however, do not know what the spill means for us and the environment over the coming years and decades. Just as we were unprepared to cap a well gushing an estimated 62,000 barrels of oil a day, 1500 m below the surface, we are, it might be said, equally unprepared to understand how this oil will change the environment and how the environment will change the oil. 

Our research goes to the heart of that question:  What are the long-term consequences of the spill?  To answer that question we must understand how the biochemistry of the Gulf is breaking down and changing the oil and the way the oil is modifying the environment.  To maintain focus on the Gulf spill, we concentrate on the MC252 oil, developing new techniques to identify the oil, even after substantial weathering.  We are mainly looking on possible paths of degradation of the immobile oil remnants that remain after weathering.

Currently, we are pursuing four important milestones:

• Replication of environmental degradation of medium-size hydrocarbons and naphthalenes and phenantherenes, including photo-oxidation and biodegradation.

• Long-term degradation of chrysenes and pyrenes, including identification and characterization of the decomposition products.

• Identification of pathways and characterization of products of environmental degradation of asphaltenes and resins, including high-pressure studies of oil degradation.

• Development and customization of combined thermogravimetric, GCMS, NMR, and fluorescence methods of identification of oil derived compounds from environmental studies. 

Our research is unique in many aspects.  (i) The collection of condensates during calorimetry of weathered samples and the analysis of those condensates with GCMS to identify the oil is unique.  (ii) The combination of 3-D fluorescence spectroscopy together with principal component analysis to classify the oil samples is unique.  (iii) The study of the degradation of the oil under pressure is unique and important when considering the deposits of oil remnants at depths of 2000 m or more. 

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