Some of the most revolutionary advances in environmental cleanup methods are happening in South Carolina — at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health. Researchers in the department of environmental health sciences’ SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience & Risk (CENR) have now perfected their oil remediation technique, which uses nanoparticles to remove oil from both oil-water and oil-soil mixtures.
[Photo: Mr. Seyyedali Mirshahghassemi (left) and Dr. Jamie Lead]
“We’ve overcome all of the scientific and technological challenges related to this technique,” says SmartState Endowed Chair and CENR director Dr. Jamie Lead. “Now we’re ready to commercialize the method so that it can start benefiting environmental and human health.”
Some of the challenges the team has overcome since they unveiled their novel approach in environmental science and technology nearly two years ago include scaling the technique up in size and testing it in a range of environmental conditions to confirm its efficacy outside the lab (which they have published in Environmental Science: Nano, Environmental Science and Technology). As a result of these tests and revisions, CENR has simplified the method to include fewer steps, reduced cost through adjustments such as lowering the temperature required, and minimized the environmental impact by employing a hydrothermal method over the use of solvents that other oil remediation techniques usually rely on.
“Our priority is to harness nanoparticles in such a way that they minimize environmental hazards and maximize benefits,” explains Dr. Lead. “We’re not just thinking about the immediate impact on the area around the contamination site but on the entire life cycle of the product in terms of how it will impact the environment.”
The researchers have tested samples obtained from polluted marine and fresh water as well as soil samples, such as those from a contamination site at Fort Jackson. The efforts to scale up the application of the cost-effective technique allows it to be applied to not only catastrophic oil spills, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill which was accompanied by an estimated cleanup cost of more than $14 billion, but also everyday contexts that might not make the news but garner their own hefty price tags over time.
“This method can be applied in chronic or persistent situations, such as runoff from roads or discharge from factories or ships,” says Dr. Lead. “It can even be used preventively to protect high-value or otherwise vulnerable settings.”
In addition to utilizing the technique preemptively, the method offers other options. For example, it can be employed by inserting the nanoparticles into the environment, allowing them to adhere to the oil, and then removing the oil and the nanoparticles using magnets. Alternatively, nanoparticles can be purposefully left in the environment where they will stimulate the growth of specific types of bacteria, which break down the oil and lead to a better long-term result for oil removal in certain situations. In both cases, the nanoparticles can remove much of the toxicity. In these ways, the new technology overcomes the difficulties of current treatment methods.