New idea for oil spill response meets innovative approach for research funding

Feb 26 2014

New York, NY – Can naturally occurring, soap-like materials be used for oil spill response? Professor Faye McNeill’s research team at Columbia University thinks so. The McNeill group has shown that natural materials which already exist in the sea may provide an effective, economical, and safer alternative to the chemicals commonly used for oil spill recovery today.

Professor Faye McNeill (left) and some members of her research team.

Each year, more than 100,000 metric tons of oil or refined petroleum product worldwide are released into the sea due to spills. Large releases such as the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo Well oil spill in 2010, which resulted in the release of more than 4 million barrels of oil, pose an acute risk to the surrounding ecosystem, especially nearby coastal areas. Chemical dispersants, which are mixtures of soap-like organic chemicals (called 'surfactants') and solvent, are valuable tools for marine oil spill response. The surfactants facilitate the breakdown of the oil into droplets, so that they can be washed away. The solvent helps the surfactants penetrate the oil layer. 2.1 million gallons of chemical dispersants were applied in response to the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo Well oil spill. Synthetic chemical dispersants are expensive. Many are also harmful to marine and coastal flora and fauna, and exposure also can be harmful to the health of workers.

“Natural surfactants like fulvic and humic acids, when combined with slow-evaporating solvents, may provide effective, economical alternatives to synthetic chemical dispersants,” says McNeill. “These alternative dispersants are also expected to be less harmful to workers and the marine ecosystem. We have very promising preliminary data showing that these substances reduce the interfacial tension between oil and seawater, promoting the formation of small oil droplets, but we need to make some upgrades our experimental setup so that we can obtain reproducible, publishable results.”

The group is using an unconventional approach to seek funding for this work. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign on, a donation-based crowdfunding platform designed to support independent, innovative science-based research projects., formerly, was launched in April 2012 by researchers from the University of Washington.  They have raised over $600,000 from public donations to fund over 80 projects.


Photo credit on project page: Creative Commons Image courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr

The McNeill Group website:


To learn more about this study, the scientific issues, and the scientists involved, please contact:

V. Faye McNeill, Associate Professor

Department of Chemical Engineering, Columbia University, twitter: @vfmcneill