A new study conducted by scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland suggests that dispersants — chemicals sprayed on oil slick surfaces to break down the oil into droplets that can be mixed with water — from biological sources can improve the degradation of more toxic chemicals in crude oil better than synthetic dispersants.

To make this determination, scientists examined how both the synthetic and biological dispersants — Finasol, a chemical dispersant, and rhamnolipids, natural biosurfactants — encouraged the breakdown of oil in the Faroe-Shetland Channel, a stretch of the North Atlantic located between the Shetland and the Faroe Islands that features considerable oil and gas activity

According to the team, when Finasol was employed, the bacteria necessary for breaking down the most toxic chemicals in crude oil — called aromatic hydrocarbons — were suppressed. Conversely, the scientists report that during testing, the biosurfactant did not suppress those bacteria, and, consequently, more of the aromatic hydrocarbons were degraded when the rhamnolipids were used.

"Developing technology to cheaply mass-produce biosurfactants like rhamnolipids would give the oil industry a greener, eco-compatible alternative for combatting oil spills rather than using synthetic chemical dispersants," the scientists noted.

The study, Response and oil degradation activities of a northeast Atlantic bacterial community to biogenic and synthetic surfactants, appears in the journal Microbiome.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com