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On The Might Of Solar Power

It seems that seas and oceans may be saved from the pollution of crude oil, leaking from the ships, et al.. Perhaps, the marine lives, coastal lives, environment and marine ecosystem could also be saved from the poisonous crude oil, as a recent study has revealed that sunlight could help dissolve at least parts of oil into seawater.

Science Advances, a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary open-access scientific journal, recently published a research paper, titled Sunlight driven dissolution is a major fate of oil at sea, prepared by the scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). As per the research paper, only sunlight can help dissolve crude oil that has been floating in oceans for a long time. The researchers have explained that sunlight breaks the oil into various chemical compounds, which are easily dissolved in water. They are of the opinion that it can be possible to save the marine ecosystem, as oil and water do not mix together.

The largest oil spill (or environmental disaster) in American history had taken place 12 years ago, in (April 20 – September 19) 2010. The event is popularly known as The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It was basically an industrial disaster that began on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. It is also considered to be the largest marine oil spill (210 million gallons of crude oil) in the history of the petroleum industry, and estimated to be 8-31% larger in volume than the previous largest, the Ixtoc I Oil Spill, also in the Gulf of Mexico.

At approximately 7:45pm (CDT) on April 20, 2010, high-pressure methane gas from a well (of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig) expanded into the marine riser and rose into the drilling rig, where it ignited and exploded, engulfing the platform. Eleven missing workers were never found, despite a three-day US Coast Guard (USCG) search operation. They are believed to have died in the explosion. Later, 94 crew members were rescued by lifeboats or helicopters, and 17 of them were treated for injuries. The Deepwater Horizon sank on the morning of April 22. The fundamental strategies for addressing the disaster were containment, dispersal and removal of spilled oil. In summer 2010, approximately 47,000 people and 7,000 vessels were involved in the project. By October 3, 2012, Federal response costs amounted to USD 850 million, mostly reimbursed by BP. As of January 2013, 935 personnel were still involved. By that time, the clean-up had cost BP over USD 14 billion.

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

So far, the Oceanographers have failed to fully understand the consequences of crude oil spills from ships in the oceans. For a long, scientists have been discussing three possible consequences. Firstly, the microorganisms in the sea consume the spilled oil, and break it into various chemical compounds through their metabolism, as these compounds are necessary for their survival. Secondly, the oil can evaporate and disappear in the form of gas from the surface of seas and oceans. Thirdly, ocean waves take the floating oil to the shore.

However, the WHOI researchers have claimed that sunlight has dissolved about 10% of the oil, spilled in the Gulf of Mexico 12 years ago. This method is called Photo-dissolution. Earlier, researchers predicted that photo-dissolution could mix spilled oil with the seawater. Now, they have proved that floating crude oil in oceans could mix with water at certain times of the year, depending on the wavelengths of sunlight and the thickness of oil slicks. Hence, there is a need to change previous perceptions about the possible consequences of oil spill in the ocean. According to researchers, a certain amount of spilled oil does not reach the shore with sea waves because of the sunlight. So, the danger of oil spill could be reduced in the coming days, and it might also be possible to safeguard the marine ecology, as well as coastal lives. Collin Ward, the Assistant Scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department, said: “The process of oil photo-dissolution has actually been known for over 50 years. But, what’s new here is our understanding how this process varies with light wavelength, which we determined using the LED reactors. This is the key piece of information that allowed us to estimate the importance of this process during a spill.” He further said: “The amount of oil that was transformed by sunlight into compounds that dissolved in seawater during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill rivals that of commonly accepted oil fates, like biodegradation and stranding on shorelines.

At the same time, the researchers have warned that not everything is known right now. In order to reduce the impact of floating oil on coastal lives, it is important to know whether the chemical compounds, created by the floating oil due to sunlight, are beneficial or harmful to the ecosystem. The WHOI is still conducting research to know these facts. Danielle Haas Freeman, the Lead Author and a student of Massachusetts Institute of Technology-WHOI Joint Programme, stressed: “One of the most fascinating aspects of this finding is that it might impact our understanding of where else the oil is going, and whether the result is good or bad.” He added: “If this sizable fraction of oil is being transformed by sunlight and is dissolving into seawater, that might mean that less oil is ending up in other places, like sensitive coastal ecosystems. However, we have to consider the impacts of the compounds on marine organisms before we can decide if the net result is positive or negative.

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