The bleeding of oil into the Gulf of Mexico may be tapering off, but the work of cleaning up the coastline's sensitive marshland and beaches will last for years. Some of the same innovators who produce biodiesel are eager to help. "Biodiesel is America's first commercially available advanced biofuel, and one of its main benefits is displacing crude oil. Now biodiesel producers can make a green product that can also clean up that same oil," says Steve Howell, technical director of the National Biodiesel Board.
Methyl esters, the chemical yielded in biodiesel production, can be formulated into a bio-based solvent that is federally listed as a shoreline-washing agent for oil spill clean-up. An effort is underway to encourage the use of this effective product to re-mediate oiled shorelines, particularly the more sensitive marsh habitats.
"The chemical dispersant used in the Gulf have been criticized because all they do is dissolve the oil back into the water, which actually makes it more toxic to sea life," says Randall Von Wedel, founder and principal biochemist of CytoCulture International, a company that pioneered the method in the 1990s. "A bio-based solvent does the opposite of a dispersant. It removes the oil from impacted vegetation and shoreline and floats it into the water for easy recovery."
The process involves crews spraying the methyl esters from shallow draft boats onto oil-covered marsh vegetation or small beaches normally unreachable by land. After the biobased solvent is applied, a gentle "rain" of seawater rinses the dissolved petroleum mixture off the plants and shoreline for recovery, using small mechanical skimmers. The mixture can be recycled.
Von Wedel recently visited the Gulf of Mexico, where his team submitted documentation on his product, branded "CytoSol Bio-solvent." He says a BP contractor and the U.S. Coast Guard have submitted a proposal to use the process to enhance a mechanical beach cleaning technology.
The methyl ester product was licensed by the State of California in 1997 and used to clean oiled ships and response vessels during the San Francisco Bay oil spill of 2007.