A City College of New York (CUNY) research team has developed an eco-friendly, biodegradable green ‘herding’ agent designed to clean up light crude oil spills in waterways. The solution is derived from phytol abundant — a plant-based small molecule found in the marine environment. It has the potential to effectively replace chemical-based herding agents currently in use.

“The best known chemical herders are chemically stable, non-biodegradable, and hence remain in the marine ecosystem for years,” said George John, a chemistry professor in CUNY’s Division of Science, who led the team effort. “Our goal was to develop an eco-friendly herding molecule as an alternative to the current silicone-based polymers.”

An Eco-Friendly Way to Combat Oil Spills

Herding agents are defined as surfactants — surface-active molecules — that typically reduce surface tension when dissolved into a liquid, such as saltwater. When added to the sidelines of an oil spill slick, they reduce and condense the size of the slick or move them together, making cleanup efforts much more efficient.

“Understanding the interfacial behavior is crucial to design the next generation eco-friendly herding agents” said Charles Maldarelli, a professor of chemical engineering in CCNY’s Benjamin Levich Institute for Physico-Chemical Hydrodynamics who assisted in the study.

Findings from the team’s research appeared in the June 26 issue of “Science Advances.”

Volume of Oil Spills in Waterways on the Decline

Oil spills are certainly still a major issue, but the frequency of incidents and total number of gallons spilled has been steadily declining over the past 25 years, according to the Federal Highway Administration. In 1990, a total of 8,177 oil spill incidents were recorded, spilling 7,915,007 gallons of oil. By 2011, the number of occurrences had dropped to 3,065, spilling 210,271 gallons of oil.

Of course, there are exceptions, as Hurricane Katrina caused multiple oil spills in 2005 and the largest ever spill in U.S. waters began on April 20, 2010 with the explosion and fire of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig working for BP.

Hopefully, the new eco-friendly oil spill solution will be another step forward in improving water quality that is polluted by spills from vessels and pipelines transporting crude oil and petroleum products, offshore drilling units and platforms.

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