Florida State University researchers taking lead on Gulf oil spill studies

Amy McKenna and Ryan Rodgers

Two groups of Florida State researchers have won grants to study different aspects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A distinguished group of Florida State University oceanographers, meteorologists, and marine biologists and ecologists will share a new, $500,000 grant from the Northern Gulf Institute to conduct a comprehensive study of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s impact on coastal and ocean marine ecosystems in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.

"This project will take us beyond shock and anxiety to show us what has really
happened and suggest where the remediation efforts must lead us," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Travis, a biologist recognized for his work in population ecology.

Multiple teams of two or three Florida State researchers will be integrating the findings from their respective portions of the study to create a detailed, multi-pronged assessment of conditions along the northern West Florida Shelf, which stretches from the Panhandle’s Big Bend Region west to Louisiana.

With a second grant–nearly $200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation–researchers at the National High Magnetic Field are using incredibly precise analytical tools housed at the lab to analyze petroleum samples collected from the Gulf of Mexico. Results of those analyses will help determine whether or not the samples originated from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – critical information in predicting where the oil is going.

Amy M. McKenna is an assistant scholar/scientist in the laboratory of Professor Alan G. Marshall, the director of the magnet lab’s Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometry facility. McKenna is the principal investigator for an NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant titled "Molecular Level Characterization and Archive for the 2010 BP Oil Spill," which will provide $198,790 in funding for one year.

McKenna and her colleagues, including co-principal investigators Marshall and associate scholar/scientist Ryan P. Rodgers, have already begun analyzing samples of raw crude oil, ocean surface samples and tar balls collected by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at various distances from the Deepwater Horizon site. Also joining the Magnet Lab team is visiting scientist Chang Samuel Hsu, a veteran petroleum researcher who was the key scientist involved in developing analytical methodologies for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

The collaboration with Woods Hole makes for a powerful analytical combination. McKenna said collaborators at Woods Hole are the best at they do, which is analyzing oil collected from the well head using a technique called chromatography. But once that oil gets spewed out into the open world, it’s exposed to the environment, which changes the oil’s composition.

"An oil spill changes its chemical composition due to evaporation and dissolution over time," McKenna said. "The incorporation of oxygen into the components makes it difficult for other analytical techniques to characterize the molecules of spilled oil. FT-ICR mass spectrometry is the only technique that can look at these changes at the molecular level without prior, tedious sample preparation."

The team’s ultimate goal is to provide a comprehensive compositional archive for all future chemical characterizations of the spill, because the magnet lab’s high-powered magnets and custom-built spectrometers are the only tools capable of analyzing the oil on such a precise molecular level.

"We will have a library of what is in there. Then everyone else will know what they’re dealing with," said Marshall, FSU’s Robert O. Lawton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "The more you know about what it is, the better you can decide what to do about it."

In recent years, Marshall’s research group has received a great deal of attention for its development of "petroleomics," an entirely new branch of chemistry that seeks to predict the properties and behavior of petroleum and its products.

The interdisciplinary, rapid-response project funded by the Northern Gulf Institute will be completed within about five months, according to FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory Director Felicia Coleman, who will help to lead the portion of the study that examines the potential for crude oil pollutants to concentrate in shelf-edge habitat "engineered" by fishery species.

Project teams will include several members of the Department of Biological Science faculty who are based at the Coastal and Marine Laboratory, and researchers from the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science and the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS).

The Northern Gulf Institute is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Institute that involves partnerships with universities across the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, including Florida State University.