The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 left serious questions about the effects of oil on local ecosystems up in the air – and UMW’s faculty and students are finding answers.
This summer, Associate Professor of Chemistry Charlie Sharpless and senior Matt Walters boarded a ship bound for the Gulf of Mexico to collect natural oil samples from seeps along the Gulf floor.
“A lot of what is known about oil comes from the study of spills,” said Sharpless, who has taught chemistry at UMW since 2004. “This study allows us to look at the natural aging process of oils in order to better understand and predict the fate of future oil spills and naturally occurring oil.”
The cruise was part of a four-year research project through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. The purpose of the project is to study the aging process of oil and specifically, the impact of photochemistry on oil naturally present in the Gulf of Mexico. Sharpless and Orlando Stewart ’15 started the project two years ago, and Walters took over when Stewart graduated from UMW.
During the cruise, Sharpless and Walters collected samples of oil along the Gulf’s surface and measured the sunlight intensity to get an overall look at the effect of photochemistry on oil.
“We were able to collect oil resting on the water’s surface with nets,” said Walters, a Spanish and chemistry double major. The oil samples are awaiting analysis by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine before some samples are shipped back to UMW for further research.
Overall, the research demonstrates that sunlight directly impacts oil’s aging process.
“The results show that photochemistry can simultaneously be beneficial and detrimental,” said Sharpless. “It can be beneficial by removing certain toxic compounds, and detrimental by forming tar and other persistent compound that may have lasting impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems.”
A peer-reviewed publication on the research is expected to be published in the summer of 2016.
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