British Petroleum today significantly increased its estimate of how much oil had spilled into Lake Michigan from its Whiting refinery in Northwest Illinois. It is now citing the amount of oil spilled as up to 39 barrels’ – or 1,638 gallons’- worth, up from the original estimate of 18 barrels. The refinery problem began when crude oil leaked into a sealed cooling system, causing the spill.
BP representative Scott Dean has stated that most of the oil has already been cleaned up from the spill site, but accidents such as these, involving crude oil and natural gas seem to be occurring more often these days, no doubt due to the nation’s aging fossil fuel infrastructure. This is a concern to anyone who heats with oil or natural gas, who drinks water taken from lakes or rivers, or who doesn’t enjoy seeing ruined natural spaces and dead wildlife.
Fortunately, advancements in science are allowing us to get better at cleaning up spills such as these through manual methods and processes such as bio-remediation which uses biological organisms “to solve an environmental problems such as contaminated soil or groundwater.” The types of organisms that are able to digest and process chemicals in oil spills can either be located at the spill site and encouraged to flourish by manipulation of the environment or introduced on site. Bio-remediation can be simpler, cheaper, and less disruptive than other cleaning methods which involve trucking large amounts of soil or water elsewhere and cleaning it.
A similar kind of chemistry is also beginning to be used in industrial parts washing. New technologies are being developed that utilize vegetable extracts as “green solvents” in industrial parts washers, taking a by-product of the vegetable processing industry and using it, combined with other cleaning agents and surfactants to clean and degrease parts, remove paint, glue, ink, wax, or even crude oil via bio-remediation. Unlike more commonly used petroleum-based solvents, these new green solvents are renewable, biodegradable, and non-flammable.
Our society is heavily dependent on petroleum solutions, but their attendant problems can be disastrous. It’s good to know that we are making progress solving at least some of these with chemistry.
By: Ryan Westphal