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Cleaning Up Contaminated Environments Safely

Dr. Helen Zhang, a professor of engineering at Memorial University.
This article was originally published in Benchmarks, the newsletter of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Memorial University.

We all know when an oil spill occurs, it’s important to clean it up as soon as possible. But, what about the process used to clean it up?

‘Oil spill management using dispersants has been proven to be effective under challenging environmental conditions.’ – Dr. Zhang.

That’s where Dr. Helen Zhang, a professor of engineering at Memorial University, and her team, which includes fellow faculty members, Drs. Kelly Hawboldt, Tahir Husain and Bing Chen, come in. They are researching a less toxic and more environmentally friendly process using biosurfactant-based dispersants for cleaning up contaminated environments – a process that has never been done before.

The management of offshore oil spills in harsh environments is becoming increasingly important as exploration shifts to more remote areas,” said Dr. Zhang. “Oil spill management using dispersants has been proven to be effective under challenging environmental conditions; however, chemical dispersant usage may cause some degree of environmental harm due to toxicity and non-biodegradability of some chemical dispersants.”

The core of Dr. Zhang’s research is to find novel, environmentally friendly and cost-effective dispersants and associated application technologies to adequately address the associated safety and environmental concerns.

‘Compared to their chemical equivalents, biodispersants are less toxic.’ – Dr. Zhang

“We are working on a process to identify and screen for the superior biosurfactant-producing bacteria from oil-contaminated samples originated in the North Atlantic ocean,” explained Dr. Zhang. “We will then grow that bacteria in specific substrate to generate biosurfactants.”

Dr. Zhang and her team receive water and oil from offshore Newfoundland, and look for all the types of bacteria in the samples to find special bacteria that can be used to make biosurfactants. These special bacteria are isolated and sent for DNA sequencing to get the pure streams, which can then be applied directly for biosurfactant production.

“Compared to their chemical equivalents, biodispersants are less toxic, biodegradable, and can be biologically produced from industrial wastes or by-products,” said Dr. Zhang.

“The project objectives are to identify and screen the superior biosurfactant-producing microbes for oil-contaminated samples with marine sources; to use industrial waste streams as a substrate to economically produce biosurfactants; to characterize the newly produced biosurfactants and optimize their combination with solvents to generate advanced biodispersants; and to assess the performance of newly produced biodispersants and associated technologies for oil spill control in cold and harsh environments.

“The research outputs will provide the Newfoundland offshore petropleum industry with effective buiodispersants that have huge potential market values; cost-effective biosurfactant-/biodispersant-producing technologies that use waste streams as substrates; and oil dispersion technologies that promote the application of biodispersants as an emergency measure for oil spill control in Newfoundla’s offshore,” said Dr. Zhang. “Additionally, we hope to contribute to the development of biodispersant application guidelines for oil spill control in large-scale applications in harsh environments.”

Dr. Zhang’s research is supported by Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (PRNL) and the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador (RDC).

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