Soy-based food additive may be a better, less toxic way to clean up oil spills

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a VCU researcher has found that soy lecithin is a less harmful and more effective way to disperse oil spills

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Soy lecithin is commonly found in many food products, such as chocolate bars, cheese, cooking spray and margarine. Now, a team of scientists led by a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has discovered that soy lecithin may also be used to disperse oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster that occurred five years ago in the Gulf of Mexico.

The researchers, led by Ram B. Gupta, Ph.D., associate dean for research and a professor of chemical and life science engineering in the VCU School of Engineering, found that lipid components of soy lecithin — an agent that hastens the absorption of liquids by forcing them to form small droplets —could break down oil in water as well as or slightly better than two commercial chemical dispersants and is less harmful to the environment.

The team's study, "Soybean Lecithin as a Dispersant for Crude Oil Spills," appears in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

Gupta recently discussed the study, as well as its possible ramifications for cleaning up future oil spill disasters.

Your team discovered that soy lecithin could serve as a less toxic way to clean up crude oil spills. What led you to study soy for this purpose?

After the Gulf oil spill in the summer of 2010, various researchers and communities reported that the liquid dispersant used was toxic to aquatic species and humans. Therefore, we decided to look into ways of formulating a dispersant that is less toxic. With the possibility of phospholipids present in lecithin breaking up oil and the fact that soy lecithin has been used extensively in the food industry, we decided to look into ways of using soy lecithin in oil spill cleanup. We also envisaged that modification of the chemical structure of soy lecithin may also enhance its crude oil break up capability. Soy lecithin is a natural food-grade surfactant and is not toxic.

In what ways is soy lecithin a better way to clean up oil spills, as opposed to traditional chemical dispersants?

The possibility of solubilizing soy lecithin in water is an added advantage since the hydrocarbon-based solvent used in most traditional liquid dispersant formulations may be toxic to clean-up workers and aquatic species. Soybean lecithin is a natural surfactant, biodegradable and also speeds up bacteria activity by providing nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to the bacteria. Lecithin will not only clean up the oil but it will also enhance its degradation since the natural bacteria, using nutrition in soy, will rapidly feed on the dispersed oil.

How far off do you think it'll be before we see soy being used to clean up oil spills? Do you foresee challenges to it being used in the real world?

Not too far, since dispersant formulated from soy lecithin will address most of the challenges of the current traditional liquid dispersants. The EPA will need to approve the replacement and oil companies to adopt it. These days a large amount of crude oil is being moved by rail in the U.S. [so the] probability of spills is always there due to train accidents. Having this benign dispersant will make it easier to clean up the spills.

What is the next step for your team? Will you continue studying soy lecithin or will you be researching something else next?

We will continue to further enhance the formulation to lower the application cost. We [would] like to design it so that the dispersant can be easily applied using aircrafts for sea application. Also the formulation should be good for both cold and warm temperatures, sea and land.

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