Academics & Research Administration News

Professor receives $1.8M grant as project initiative to save the Gulf

Jacinto Conrad in her Chemical lab: Photo by Thomas Shea

Jacinta Conrad recently received a $1.8 million grant to help aid in her research surrounding oil spills. Photo courtesy of Thomas Shea.

Assistant professor of chemical, biomolecular and petroleum engineering, Jacinta Conrad, was recently awarded a $1.8 million grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to aid in her project investigating how dispersants used to break up oil spills affect the natural cleaning role played by bacteria.

According to a news release, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative was formed in 2010 after British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and killed 11 men. Several million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, and wildlife and the surrounding area suffered major damage. BP pledged $500 million over 10 years for an independent research program to study how the spill, and efforts to clean it up, have affected the Gulf and coastal states.

Conrad sat down with The Cougar to talk about her project and the significant milestone of receiving this grant.

The Cougar: Could you explain your project?

Jacinta Conrad: We are trying to find a natural way to clean up oil spills. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP had to spend several million dollars toward research to clean up the Gulf, and that spurred this project. We noticed that oil is vanishing quicker than expected. We are targeting the role of dispersants in cleaning up oil spills.

TC: What are you looking for in your research?

JC: The project is trying to answer several questions. Knowing that bacteria consumes oil, how can we speed up this process? We are tracking the motion of bacteria toward a food source and how bacteria adapt to use oil as a food source.

TC: What is this method trying to replace?

JC: Right now, the common method is just to get a dispersant in and eliminate the oil, but that is like dumping detergent in the Gulf. We do not know the harmful effects, and it is lot of detergent. This way is more health conscious, natural and less expensive.

TC: What was the application process like for Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative funding?

JC: When I applied, the funding rate for one of these projects was under 10 percent. I was amazed when I found out we got funded. I read the email while driving, because I thought it was a rejection email, and I wanted to get it over with. I almost crashed my car. I was so shocked.

TC: Who else is helping you with this project?

JC: Well, I’m the principle investigator, but we have three collaborators across the country. Arezoo Ardekani is at Purdue University working on mechanical engineering and fluid mechanics. Douglas Bartlett is at University of California at San Diego and is focusing on marine biology. And Roseanne Ford is at the University of Virginia working on bacterial chemo taxis, which is motion toward chemicals.

TC: What have you done so far to work on the project?
JC: Well, the grant does not start until January, but I have started collecting crude oil samples from the Gulf and collecting other equipment we need. It will be a lot of fun to answer the many speculative questions around the project.

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  • Save the Gulf? The Gulf leaks a million barrels of oil a year … from natural sources. And its still healthy because little organisms that love oil feast on the stuff. And had a super feast during the BP incident.

  • Bob, natural oil seeps are actually thought to be from one million to five million barrels a year. That’s been going on for probably millions of years. Why isn’t the Gulf Coast coated with the oil?

    As you mentioned, there are bacteria and fungi that, over time, break the oil down. When there is a human spill, the bacteria and fungi populations swell to take advantage of the banquet that we have inadvertently provided.

    Since oil isn’t just one thing chemically, there are many different microbes that have evolved to feed on the different organic compounds that compose oil.

    Oil spills are disasters of course. Humans shouldn’t wait for nature to clean up the mess. But we need to be careful about using chemicals that nature may not have learned to break down. .

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