Protecting our oceans, one polymer at a time

Oct 19th, 2012

By Jackey Locke

Drs. Christina Bottaro, Kelly Hawboldt and Erika Merschrod
Protecting our oceans, one polymer at a time

When an oil spill occurs in the marine environment, the impact is huge, not to mention the devastation for marine life.  And whether or not a major marine disaster is inevitable with so much activity taking place on our oceans, Memorial University researchers are doing their part to protect our oceans.

The chief investigators of the Microfluidic Sensor Technology Project are Drs. Christina Bottaro and Erika Merschrod of the Faculty of Science’s Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Kelly Hawboldt of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. This project aims to develop microfluidic sensor technology to measure contaminants in harsh marine environments, especially oil-in-water. The core technology involved is molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) and accompanying sensing systems which can be deployed for oil spill monitoring and fate analysis, or incorporated into the online analysis of produced water and tracking of oil spills in the marine environment.

“Unlike the bulk of online systems or oil-spill tracking systems, we are targeting components of the oil that are most problematic in the environment due to their toxicity and/or persistence, which means they don’t readily biodegrade and bioaccumulate in animals and plants,” explained Dr. Hawboldt.

The primary advantage of the small MIP-based devices is their sensitivity and selectivity. When deployed into a marine environment, the MIPs will only detect targeted compounds, such as phenols, heavier polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other compounds that are toxic to the marine environment, while avoiding irrelevant compounds, ensuring accuracy.

“That way produced water treatment or oil spill response systems can be tailored to focus on the contaminants of concern. Since the sensors are small and simple, they can be used anywhere samples need to be collected, and they can function in cold temperatures and under ice cover,” said Dr. Hawboldt.

The long-term goal is to use the platform technology for the commercialization of new biosensor applications in medicine, biotechnology and civil defense.

For Dr. Hawboldt, the most exciting part of all of this is being at the front end and in a position to prevent the negative impacts before they occur.

“This funding will not only lead to innovative sensors, but also delineate the contaminants of concern in produced water and oil spills. We will be better able to treat and respond to these events. This is especially true in harsh environments where compounds may disperse quickly and, therefore, difficult to measure, but still have an impact on the marine environment. In detecting these compounds, we will be able to better assess the environmental impact and address them through treatment and mitigation,” she said.

This project, with a total estimated cost of $3 million, will receive approximately $2.1 million from the Federal Government's Atlantic Innovation Fund. This funding supports advancements in Newfoundland and Labrador's ocean technology cluster, IT industry and medical research fields.


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