Oil spills cause gigantic problems for ecosystems and wildlife, but cleaning them up can create additional headaches. Last week a group of environmentalists sued the Environmental Protection Agency, alleging that the combination of oil and dispersants used to clean up spills creates a potion more toxic than the oil alone.
There may be a better way. A group of researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi recently presented a delicious-sounding alternative to chemical dispersants: a combo made up of common food products like peanut butter, chocolate, and whipped cream.
"Current dispersants are the lesser of two evils," explained chemist Lisa Kemp in a press briefing. Today’s toxic dispersant potions can affect life forms that comes into contact with the surface of the oil, and when the clumps of oil and dispersant move around in the water, the dispersants can wreak havoc on the sea floor.
During the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, nearly two million gallons of chemical dispersants were sprayed into the Gulf in an effort to break up the oil slick. Cleanup workers and local residents complained of adverse health effects that they blamed on the dispersants, and a study last month showed that a chemical in the dispersants harmed microorganism populations that are a key link in the marine food chain, with negative implications for fish and larger sea animals.
The new dispersant uses food-safe ingredients instead of petroleum products. It’s based on lecithin, an ingredient used in non-stick cooking sprays and cellulose (a compound derived from plants’ cell walls that can give ice cream and smoothies a thicker texture). The dispersant also binds to oil, allowing it to it roll off any substance. "Our dispersant provides non-stick behavior," said Kemp. "Animal, bird, sand—the oil just rinses off with more seawater."
Unlike traditional dispersants, the team’s formulation provides a food source for oil-eating microbes, and it floats on the ocean surface, instead of dispersing into the water column. "It stays at the surface where it degrades or can be collected," explained Kemp.
The team is now working on scaling up production of the dispersant, which they say is cost-competitive with existing products. They are also working on field studies in the Gulf of Mexico, testing the properties of the product. In theory, a dispersant should be shelf-stable for several years—but proving that requires several years of testing, says the group. Regardless, we’d like to see this dessert-ready dispersant alternative on the market sooner rather than later.