May 19, 2024

Charlie Sharpless Receives NSF Grant to Study Fate of Marine Oil Spills

Recent research shows that oil in marine systems ages in ways inconsistent with current models.  Specifically, the hydrocarbon fraction has long been assumed to get oxidized, become more water soluble, and then biologically or abiotically degrade, eventually to CO2.  Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have discovered that oxidized hydrocarbons actually constitute a sizable portion of the recalcitrant tar that remains at the late stages of a spill.   This process is presumably important in the weathering of natural oil seeps as well, which constitute the majority of oceanic oil.  Charlie and colleagues at Woods Hole and the University of California, Santa Barbara have received funding from the National Science Foundation, Division of Chemical Oceanography to study the extent to which photochemical and microbial processes drive this oxidation process.  The project, entitled “Oxygenation of Hydrocarbons in the Ocean” is a three-year study that will provide opportunities for UMW students to travel to and study at WHOI and UCSB as well as participate in a cruise in the Gulf  of Mexico to sample oil at various stages of weathering.