Biodiesel producers stand ready to help clean up oil spill

By Jenna Higgins Rose | July 13, 2010
Some of the same innovators who produce biodiesel are hoping their product could soon be used in the Gulf of Mexico, cleaning up the beaches and marshes ravaged by the BP oil spill.

Methyl esters, the chemical yielded in biodiesel production, can be formulated into a biobased solvent that is federally listed as a shoreline washing agent for oil spill clean-up.

The process starts with crews spraying the biosolvent from shallow draft boats onto oil-covered marsh vegetation or small beaches normally unreachable by land, said Randall von Wedel, founder and principal biochemist of CytoCulture International, a company that pioneered the method in the 1990s.

After the biosolvent is applied, it is followed with a gentle "rain" of seawater to rinse the dissolved petroleum mixture off the plants and shoreline for recovery on the water, using small mechanical skimmers.

"Unlike other clean-up techniques, the beauty of this is that it is a green process that is nonaggressive and won't do any more damage to the oil-covered marshes and other sensitive habitats," von Wedel said. "We're growing concerned that the approach will be to slash and burn, which is incredibly damaging to the environment and will kill wildlife. They don't need to do that."

The mixture of dissolved petroleum oil and CytoSol recovered by mechanical skimmers can be recycled at local refineries. With traditional clean-up methods, the oil material is gathered and dumped in landfills.

Earlier this summer, von Wedel visited the Gulf of Mexico. He made arrangements to tap into 70,000 gallons of methyl esters from soybean oil to produce the product, which he brands "CytoSol Biosolvent."

Although at press time his team had submitted documentation to BP and the U.S. Coast Guard, von Wedel said there is a backlog in the "alternative response technology" screening process. Von Wedel has teamed up with other companies in Louisiana to offer an integrated shoreline remediation strategy. It combines mechanical, chemical and biological methods into one toolbox, and the team hopes the Coast Guard will buy into this approach of using prequalified technologies on the Gulf.

"This method has been used several times to clean stream beds in California, so we are familiar with the results," von Wedel said. He noted that the 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.

"Typically we can 'lift and float' more than 60 percent of the crude oil off the shorelines and then rely on native bacteria to degrade the remaining residuals," he said.

In the meantime, von Wedel said another oil company recently purchased the product for an unrelated spill. Chevron Corp. purchased CytoSol for testing on oiled river banks in Utah after a pipeline spill in early June. The spill resulted in 500 barrels of crude oil contaminating a pristine river near the Great Salt Lake.

The CytoSol biosolvent includes a nutrient additive, which helps speed up the biodegradation of residual petroleum. But any biodiesel producer could make the base product.

"This is another example of what our innovative biodiesel producers can contribute to society," said Steve Howell, technical director of the National Biodiesel Board. "Not only are they producing the first commercially available advanced biofuel in the U.S. to displace crude oil, but they can also produce a green product that can clean up that same oil."

Von Wedel says he and his team will continue attempting to get the biosolvent into the Gulf.

"I'm doing this first and foremost because I am concerned about the ecology and fisheries of the Gulf Coast," he said. "Our aim is to use our combination of technologies to recover the oil from these areas and allow the ecosystems to heal quickly. That's critical if we expect seafood industry and wildlife to bounce back."
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