February 8, 2011

Together with Tulane engineers, group identified the mechanisms that should go into models predicting fate and impact of oil and dispersants

Since the flow of oil in the Gulf has been stopped, one major topic of discussion has remained – what kind of impact will it have? While some contend that only time will tell, LSU chemical engineers Louis Thibodeaux and Kalliat Valsaraj, together with colleagues at Tulane University, have published a perspective on a model to predict the environmental fate and impact of both the oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. The program is described in an article, “Marine Oil Fate: Knowledge Gaps, Basic Research and Development Needs: A Perspective Based on the Deepwater Horizon Spill,” published in Environmental Engineering Science on Feb. 1.

“This provides the basis for future research into the environmental effects of deepwater oil and gas releases,” said Valsaraj, chair of LSU’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

Since the Deepwater Horizon incident represents the first time that an oil spill has occurred at such significant depths, as well as the first time dispersants were added directly at the wellhead in order to break up the volume of oil, the situation left many unknowns in its wake, the biggest of which being the question of the safety of deepwater drilling.

The article identifies three major areas lacking in information:

  • Too little information about oil and gas release processes in deepwater;
  • No one knows where material released in the deep actually goes;
  • And no one fully understands the ecological impacts this material has on the Gulf of Mexico.

Because of these gaps of knowledge in the scientific community, there are no mathematical tools for forecasting or projecting oil release or fate after the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

“It seems a bit ironic to me that the purpose of dispersants is to keep a large fraction of oil off the surface and shoreline, yet engineers and scientists are virtually clueless as to how much delivered to the deep and how it impacting the marine ecology,” said Thibodeaux, Jesse Coates Professor of Chemical Engineering at LSU. “Having available a verified theoretical model for forecasting the fraction of oil staying deep would aid in closing the mass balance to answer the question, ‘where does it all go?’”

The article concludes that existing models should be modified to address deepwater spills, and that much more research should be focused on water column and bed sediment processes so that they can be quantified and entered into refined models.

Co-authors from Tulane University include Vijay John, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Lawrence Pratt and Noshir Pesika.

Article by Ashley Berthelot, LSU Media Relations, aberth4@lsu.edu, 225-578-3870

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