Research consortium receives $9.2 million award

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A research consortium led by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute received a $9.2 million award to further investigate the effects of dispersants and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and their impact on public health.

The seven-institute consortium, led by Edward Buskey, UT-Austin marine science professor, received the award from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative. Buskey said the award will help the consortium continue its research. 

“It’s based on the $500 million BP pledge for independent research over 10 years,” Buskey said. “[The program launched] after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill [and is] headed by Rita Colwell.”

According to Buskey, this is the second grant the consortium, Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies, has received. Its first set of research was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative in 2012.

“[In 2012,] they put out a number of proposals and decided to have a consortium of universities,” Buskey said. “You’d have people from different disciplines working on the project. We got our first grant of about $6 million and then another request for proposals of consortiums came out. We applied and got funded again. Now, there are 12 consortiums studying some aspect of oil spills.”

Buskey said dispersants are essentially detergents that break up oil, and the Deepwater Horizon spill was the first time dispersants were used.

“They directly applied detergent to the oil as it was coming out of the well. That breaks it up into really small droplets so the small droplets rise really slowly,” Buskey said. “The droplets are so small that they interact with marines in the sea base of the food web, like plankton in the sea actually eat them. We’re ending up with a mathematical model that will predict what [will] happen when you use dispersants and where it’ll go and how it will affect the food web. We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis.”

Zhanfei Liu, marine science assistant professor, worked closely with Buskey to analyze how hydrocarbons can be degraded in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s all new research. There’s a lot of things we don’t know,” Liu said. “When you have oil spill in the gulf, we still have no idea how long oil persists or can degrade. We can’t make predictions. Or another way to look at it is whether you want to apply dispersant or not. There’s a lot of debate.”