Prelims level : Science and Tech Mains level : General Studies-III: Technology, Economic development, Bio-Diversity, Environment, Security and Disaster Management
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Why in News:

  • Scientists have discovered a unique oil eating bacterium in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the earth’s oceans, a finding that may pave way for sustainable ways to clean up oil’s spills.
  • In the samples, they found microorganisms that eat compounds similar to those in oil and then use it for fuel.

Background: / Causes of Oil Spills:

The common causes of oil spills are as following:

  • Natural causes: Tsunami, Cyclone, Thunderstorm etc.
  • Human Causes: War, attack, sabotage, human mistakes leading to a collision or some technical reasons.

What are the major impacts of Oil Spill?

On Marine life

  • The most affected organisms are those which floats near the surface like turtles, fishes, crabs etc.
  • Sea animals caught in an oil spill, on being exposed to toxic petroleum products often results in lower reproductive rates, organ damage, and death. The effects remain for a long period of time.
  • Fishes die due to inability to swim or breath.
  • Note: This time was core breeding period for olive ridley turtles and due to oil slick sticking to the gut mother turtles may find it difficult to lay the eggs.

On Birds

  • Many birds die due to drowning or inability to eat due to oil sticking to their body.

On Humans

  • Direct exposure can have varying effects depending on the toxicity and chemicals involved in the spill.
  • Humans get exposed to toxicity through breathing gaseous oil compounds and/or oil compounds adsorbed on particulate matter (dispersed through the air). Exposure can also  happen due to the activities in the contaminated ground (e.g., soil) or through skin absorption when touching spilled material.
  • There is a huge economic cost attached with such disasters.

What are the problems faced in the oil-remedial processes?

The problems with oil-remedial processes are as following:

  • Petroleum oils are complex mixtures of chemicals that are toxic, bio accumulative and persistent in the environment. Some, like benzene, are known human carcinogens.
  • They enter the body through inhalation, ingestion and the skin.
  • An oil spill clean-up is a hazardous waste remediation exercise. Many traditional methods of cleaning oil spills, such as breaking up the oil with dispersants or skimming it off the surface, are expensive, slow, and unsafe – and often don’t really work all that well anyway. During the recent disaster, authorities starting pumping oil sludge by city water pump but all in vain.
  • Later on, volunteers skimmed off the oil using buckets in hand which can be very dangerous for individuals.

What are the available technological solutions?

  • Oil Zapper is a cocktail of bacteria that feed on the oil and degrade the hydrocarbons. Newer methods and technologies like Nanosheets that could revolutionize oil spill clean ups and water purification needs to be deployed. It has following major benefits:
  • Recyclable.
  • absorb 33 times their weight in oil.
  • One gram of nanosheets has the equivalent area as nearly 5.5 tennis courts – so a lot of surface for absorption. Saturated nanosheets can be simply heated in air for two hours for cleaning purpose. The absorbed oil burns off, leaving the nanosheets clean and free to absorb again. Easy to build and affordable.
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