New analytical tool could aid in effective cleanup of oil spills

By Patrick C. Miller | June 06, 2017

Researchers at Florida International University are developing an analytical tool that can help determine what happens to oil after it spills or leaks into the environment—technology that could lead to improved cleanup methods.

Francisco Fernandez-Lima, a Ph.D. chemist and director of the project at FIU’s Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, said the lab’s analytical method can help determine the photo and biological transformations oil undergoes after it enters the environment.

“There is always a question of what happens with the environment around the oil,” he said. “There is a contribution from the environment. It turns out that one of the transformations for the oil is the bio-transformation—the cellular and microorganisms that live in the environment. They contribute heavily to oil’s degradation.”

By combining information about oil’s photo and the biological transformations, researchers can better understand how the degradation occurs and what effect it has. Although the process is currently being tested on oil spills in saltwater settings, Fernandez-Lima said it could be used in any environment, including onshore spills in freshwater settings.

“The idea of the tool is to break down the crude oil sample,” he explained. “What we want to do is determine the transformation process and the final fate of the original crude oil. We want to build a model of the structure we start with, the structure we go through and what will be the final product.”

What’s unique about the technology is that it combines two techniques to analyze how sunlight and microorganisms degrade and transform oil in the environment. It uses high-resolution trapped ion mobility spectrometry (TIMS) and ultrahigh-resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FT-ICR MS) to separate and characterize complex mixtures.

“It’s able to pull hundreds of thousands of components apart and give you the spectrometry,” Fernandez-Lima said. “We now have a tool that can actually give you all these pieces of information. Eventually, that will help us develop a theoretical model of the main transformations that occur.”

The goal is to evaluate the environmental effects of the final products, as well as their intermediate components. “Sometimes the intermediates are more active than the final product,” Fernandez-Lima said.

The new tool could change how oil spills are cleaned up because workers will have more and better information that can be used to determine the ideal remediation strategy. The analytical tool can help predict the toxicity of spilled oil, how far it can travel and how long it might stay in the environment.

Another advantage of FIU’s analytical tool is that is requires less sample preparation and provides results in four to five hours. According to Fernandez-Lima, this is much faster than traditional techniques. He also said that although the research is still in its infancy, he expects it to lead to the development of “petro-informatics.”

“It will be the equivalent of what it done in the biological world with the biotransformation of molecules through metabolic pathways,” he explained. “In the case of crude oil, it’s more photo and biodegradation pathways. But if we can narrow it down to a few processes that drive degradation, we can actually have a pretty good idea of what will be the environmental effect.”