A team of polymer science professors from the University of Southern Mississippi have made headlines recently with their new biodegradable oil dispersant that won’t stick to birds or beaches. They have caught the attention of National Geographic and most recently NBC Learn.
The USM team – consisting of Dr. Robert Lochhead, Dr. Daniel Savin and Dr. Sarah Morgan — received a grant for $150,000 in August 2010, from the National Science Foundation. They now have a “proof of concept” for the dispersant and are applying for more funds to develop a refined, working prototype.
Chemical dispersants were used to break up the oil from the Gulf’s Deepwater Horizon spill to make clean up easier. However, oil that reached the shore stuck to the sand and wildlife.
After the spill the USM team thought of developing a formula for a dispersant that would keep oil from sticking.
They were inspired by laundry detergent, which pulls dirt and oil off clothes, which then goes away in a rinse cycle, said Savin. However, in the ocean there is no rinse cycle, “so you need to hold on to it for some time so microbial processes can break the oil down naturally.”
In addition to a microbe-friendly formula, they also wanted something biodegradable that could be created from components that were already commercially available and could be obtained in large quantities.
“When you get a mass oil spill, you need to be in a position where you can provide a million pounds of dispersant on the door step tomorrow,” Lochhead said.
Using a specially designed robot, the team was able to do a large amount of work in a very short amount of time.
“A good technician/scientist can do five or 10 experiments a day. (With the robot) we can do in a day what would normally take six months to a year to do,” Lochhead said.
Lochhead said to his knowledge, the USM team is the only group with this type of technology, and they are starting to file paper work for a provisional patent.
Although scientists often work quietly, Lochhead said, “from looking at the literature that’s out there – patent literature, news, review literature – there’s nobody else working on this project.”
Regarding technology ownership, since development money came from a federal grant, the government would initially own the patent, Lochhead said. But often the government will turn around and allow a patent to become the property of a university, he said.
Right now, the dispersant concept works in 5-gallon, aquarium-scale model. Later, the team will move on to larger-scale testing.
Lochhead estimates that environmental testing will take three to four years of working with marine scientists, biologists and others to complete.
Meanwhile, the USM team, like many others, is working on technology for absorbent material that could be created in large sheets and would soak up 20 times its own weight in oil. The desired material could then be wrung out and redeployed.
The USM School of Polymers and High Performance Materials was created in 1970, and is one of six such departments in the nation. Southern has the largest undergraduate program in polymer science.
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