Cleaning up contaminated environments safely

Mar 19th, 2014

By Jackey Locke

Dr. Zhang aboard the Eastern Canada Response Corporation (ECRC) boat for oil spill response. ECRC provides marine oil spill response services, when requested, to the
Cleaning up contaminated environments safely

We all know when an oil spill occurs, it’s important to clean it up as soon as possible. But, what about the process used to clean it up?

That’s where Dr. Helen Zhang, a professor of engineering at Memorial University, and her team, which includes fellow faculty members, Drs. Kelly Hawboldt, Tahir Husain and Bing Chen, come in. They are researching a less toxic and more environmentally friendly process using biosurfactant-based dispersants for cleaning up contaminated environments – a process that has never been done before.

“The management of offshore oil spills in harsh environments are becoming increasingly important as exploration shifts to more remote areas,” said Dr. Zhang. “Oil spill management using dispersants has been proven to be effective under challenging environmental conditions; however, chemical dispersant usage may cause some degree of environmental harm due to toxicity and non-biodegradability of some chemical dispersants.”

The core of Dr. Zhang’s research is to find novel, environmentally friendly and cost-effective dispersants and associated application technologies to adequately address the associated safety and environmental concerns.

“We are working on a process to identify and screen for the superior biosurfactant-producing bacteria from oil-contaminated samples originated in the North Atlantic ocean,” explained Dr. Zhang. “We will then grow that bacteria in specific substrate to generate biosurfactants.”

Dr. Zhang and her team receive water and oil samples from offshore Newfoundland, and look at all the types of bacteria in the samples to find special bacteria that can be used to make biosurfactants. These special bacteria are isolated and sent for DNA sequencing to get the pure streams, which can then be directly applied for biosurfactant production.

“Compared to their chemical equivalents, biodispersants are less toxic, biodegradable, and can be biologically produced from industrial wastes or by-products,” said Dr. Zhang.

“The project objectives are to identify and screen the superior biosurfactant-producing microbes from oil-contaminated samples with marine sources; to use industrial waste streams as the substrate to economically produce biosurfactants; to characterize the newly produced biosurfactants and optimize their combination with solvents to generate advanced biodispersants; and to assess the performance of newly produced biodispersants and associated technologies for oil spill control in cold and harsh environments.

“The research outputs will provide the Newfoundland offshore petroleum industry with effective biodispersants that have huge potential market values; cost-efficient biosurfactant-/biodispersant-producing technologies that use waste streams as substrates; and oil dispersion technologies that promote the application of biodispersants as an emergency measure for oil spill control in Newfoundland’s offshore,” said Dr. Zhang.

“Additionally, we hope to contribute to the development of biodispersant application guidelines for oil spill control in large-scale applications in harsh environments.”

Dr. Zhang’s research is supported by Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador (PRNL) and the Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador.


Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000