BUFFALO, N.Y. -- After the failure of the Deepwater Horizon oil
well last spring, nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant were
released into the Gulf of Mexico to contain the spill. While
preliminary reports suggest that it successfully dispersed much of
the oil, the long-term effect of such a massive volume of
dispersant on ecosystems, wildlife and humans remains to be
That's why a University at Buffalo researcher with expertise in
how the main ingredients of dispersants -- polymers and surfactants
-- interact in solutions and at surfaces is working toward
designing more environmentally friendly oil dispersants, including
those based on natural, mineral-based ingredients.
Marina Tsianou, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and
biological engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied
Sciences, is conducting the research under a recently awarded RAPID
Response Research Grant from the National Science Foundation.
On Sept. 22, she will meet with scientists doing similar work at
an NSF-sponsored "Workshop on the Science and Technology of
Dispersants Relevant to Deep Sea Floor Oil Releases" in Arlington,
"The purpose of our grant is to create novel dispersants through
the utilization of polymers, surfactants and solvents that would be
less harsh to the environment," says Tsianou.
Her goal is to develop new dispersants through a better
understanding of how they interact with crude oil and naturally
occurring particles at the nanoscale level.
"There is very little published research on the fundamental
interactions between crude oil and dispersant," says Tsianou.
Tsianou notes that the scientific community was aware of the
need for additional research on dispersants as far back as 2005
when the National Academy of Sciences reported that research on
dispersants, especially on the molecular level, was very limited
and on the decline.
"That is where our research fits in," she says.
Tsianou and her colleagues at UB will be relying on their
expertise on using macromolecules, nanoparticles and inorganic
molecules as building blocks for high-end, multifunctional
materials and products that ultimately improve the quality of
"When we study these surface interactions, we can learn how to
control hydrophilicity and hydrophobicity -- their affinity, or
lack of affinity, for crude oil -- as well as develop novel
mechanisms to optimize their properties," she says.
Tsianou will explore the suitability of alternative solvents and
surfactants, such as those found in processed foods, for some
dispersant formulations, as well as mineral particles that could
serve as environmentally friendly surface active agents.
"We also will take into consideration the different compositions
that oil has, depending on its origin and the time elapsed since
its release," she says. "Oil that comes from Alaska has a different
composition than oil drilled from the Gulf of Mexico or the Middle
She and her UB colleagues will look at how mechanical
disturbances, such as those caused by hurricanes and storms, affect
the way that dispersant interacts with oil.
They also will study how local environmental conditions, such as
those on the Great Lakes where, she points out, smaller-scale
spills also occur, might influence how dispersants function and the
long-term impact they might have on local wildlife and
"If we make a more efficient dispersant, then we can use far
less of it," she says. "Millions of gallons of anything, even a
very benign material, is a lot to release into the
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.