Scientist suggests alternative to chemical dispersants

June 11, 2010 7:04:52 PM PDT
BP has been spraying a controversial chemical to disperse the oil in the Gulf of Mexico, which has drawn protests and concerns about long term effects on the environment. One researcher, just back from the gulf, has come up with something he says is much safer.

It looks like chocolate, but stinks like the beginning of time -- primordial ooze from the gusher in the gulf that Randall von Wedel collected three weeks ago and just brought back to his lab in Richmond.

"Most Americans think it is a very thick sheet of oil. At this point it has been photo-oxidized, dissolved, and biodegraded to the point where it no longer has oil consistency," von Wedel said.

That's the good news. But the bigger issue is recovery.

Von Wedell is a biochemist who has developed a vegetable oil-based product that can lift oil from shorelines and marshes and then float it on water for easy recovery.

BP and the Coast Guard have not used it in the gulf, opting, instead, for more than a million gallons of chemical dispersants, prompting suits from environmental groups and frustration from developers of less toxic substances.

"I think it is frustrating as a researcher that there is a barrier, a difficulty in transferring innovation from institutions to industry," von Wedel said.

The most controversial of the dispersants is called corexit.

In the San Francisco Bay, the Coast Guard tried a lighter grade of the toxic stuff after the Cosco Busan spill.

"It had some effectiveness, but another product worked better, and in all honesty, we just hand cleaned those rocks," Lt. Cmdr. Gus Bannon said.

But as the Coast Guard explains it, the use of chemical dispersants would not happen at all without miles of red tape first.

"We have hundreds of pages of manual and a check list we would go through before even considering it," Bannon said.

And as all parties point out, there are major differences between the processed, heavy fuel oil the Bay Area saw from Cosco Busan and the crude in the gulf.

Back in Richmond, von Wedel is hoping for a call and a large order.

"They need to test different approaches and use teams to evaluate different technologies," he said.


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