Daily Iowan: UI Team Works on Oil Spill

Thursday, July 22, 2010

By Ryan Roccaforte
Daily Iowan

The explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon rig continues to transform the lives of people nationwide, but for a pair of University of Iowa students, it provides an opportunity to learn.

Elliott Beenk, a junior in mechanical engineering, traveled to Louisiana for five days with Aaron Gwinnup, a graduate student in environmental engineering, attempting to understand how to bioremediate the coastal ecosystem damaged by the oil spill through phytoremediation — a process that uses plants to treat environmental problems.

Since its return in late June, the team — which also includes UI engineering Professor Jerry Schnoor — has spent countless hours researching and learning, but the process has just begun.

Beakers of soil samples and plants line the walls of the W.M. Keck Phototechnology Laboratory at the Seamans Center, and the team of researchers hope to find whether native Louisiana grass affected by the oil can be saved or replanted.

The two students saw the oil devastation firsthand. Comparing the off-shore oil to brown sludge, Beenk said it often made for difficult working conditions.

"The dispersent makes [the oil] so diluted that it's not really possible to see visible oil," he said.

The team plans to answer two critical questions over the next six months to one year: finding out how much oil is toxic to the grasses and the rate of plants' biodegredation of the oil, Schnoor said.

Schnoor is considered a "grandfather" of the phytoremediation process across the country, in addition to being a mentor to Beenk.

"I've been guiding [Beenk] with the use of phytoremediation,"Schnoor said. "It's a natural and green technology, and it's less expensive; in the right application it can be quite effective."

The researchers will eventually recreate the oil spill in small samples, and from there, the team can better determine the next steps to be taken in the coastal marshlands.

Once this information is gathered, the team can offer suggestions to workers in the affected region.
"We would either encourage plants, or replant if everything dies to try to restore and recover the habitat there," Schnoor said. "The plants are necessary because they are a habitat for the bacteria that degrades the oil."

Like any good research project, though, Beenk and Gwinnup ran into some problems.

"Ideally, we wanted samples of crude oil coming out of the well, an oiled marsh sample and a clean one. The only one we were able to get was a clean marsh sample," Beenk said.

The team was also not legally allowed to access the boomed-off areas for fear of fines.

Since the team did not collect two essential samples, their partner, Eugene Turner of Louisiana State University, is offering vital assistance.

"Turner's students found some oil samples, and they are gong to ship those up here," Beenk said. "In addition to that, we bought a liter of sweet Louisiana crude, which is the same quality of the oil coming out of the well."

These samples will help the UI team understand how — and if — the phytoremediation process can help biodegrade the oil.

In the future, the team may have the ability to restore ecosystems devastated by a disaster nearly 1,000 miles from home.

"The intentions won't show up in an annual plan or in an administrative hierarchy, but something useful gets done when goodwill is allowed to flourish," Turner said.