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Combatting oil spills

Laboratory recognized worldwide for pioneering marine pollution control


By Jackey Locke

Dr. Bing Chen established and leads the Northern Region Persistent Organic Pollution Control (NRPOP) Laboratory—the first of its kind in Canada.

The laboratory is funded through Dr. Chen’s Canadian Foundation for Innovation Award and other industrial funds. Dr. Chen is an associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Civil Engineering.

Oil spill cleanup

NRPOP is recognized worldwide for its pioneering research on persistent and toxic organic pollutants, such as oils and pesticides, and their pollution mitigation in cold regions and harsh marine environments.

“There have been substantial concerns since the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.” — Dr. Bing Chen

Operational or accidental releases of these pollutants, especially from petrochemical, energy and ocean industries, pose significant risks to humans and ecosystems and have long-term negative effects on aquatic environments.

“There have been substantial concerns since the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Chen. “Eleven people were killed and over 10,000 square kilometres of sea covered by 4.9 million barrels of crude oil when a Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank.”

The tragedy is considered the worst oil spill in U.S. history. In recent years, Dr. Chen and his colleagues and students have made important research breakthroughs and significant contributions to help prevent a similar tragedy from happening again, anywhere in the world.

Treatment technologies

The NRPOP consists of world-class research expertise and facilities dedicated to innovation and creativity through integrating environmental engineering approaches with nano-/bio-technologies and advanced physical/numerical modelling methods.

Researchers in the laboratory have developed a series of integrated advanced oxidation processes and novel enhancement technologies, such as ultraviolet, LED and ultrasonic irradiation, hybrid catalysts (nano-size) and impinging stream reactions to remove dissolved, persistent and toxic hydrocarbons and other chemicals and bacteria from oil wastewater.

“In addition to treatment technologies, we have also developed and tested new kinetics models for competitive and enhanced oxidation processes,” said Dr. Chen. “The success of our testing has attracted great attention and financial support from private and public sectors and collaboration worldwide.”

Green solutions

NRPOP researchers are also developing a set of new bio-markers, bio-dispersants and nano-/bio-remediation technologies, which are presenting new-generation, cost-effective and eco-friendly solutions for cleaning up oil spills as quickly and efficiently as possible. The work has received significant interest from the petroleum industry and regulators within Canada and beyond.

“We have developed and tested bacteria and genetically mutated strains for oil degradation and biosurfactant production, and established and applied new agent-based dynamic risk-simulation-optimization coupling approaches to help responders make more efficient, real-time and optimal response decisions in cold and harsh conditions,” said Dr. Chen.

High cost and low efficiency are significant hurdles for fuel cells to become economical energy alternatives. Meanwhile, industrial oily wastewater presents a major and costly treatment challenge, but is also a cheap and relatively abundant source of electrons for microbes capable of producing electricity. Dr. Chen and his team have developed new highly porous and conductive nano-materials (MOF-Sina) and applied them to create a novel microbial fuel cell to treat wastewater and generate electricity simultaneously.

“We are also testing a group of selected and mutated bacteria to enhance bioelectrochemical reactions and make the fuel cell more cost-efficient,” Dr. Chen said.

International reach

Dr. Chen is currently developing several new international R&D initiatives through collaboration with researchers and partners across the world, including the U.S., Norway, China and Brazil. NRPOP will continue to play a leading role in the country and increase its scientific and practical impacts on managing operational marine wastewater and responding to oil spills in harsh environments worldwide.

The ultimate goals of NRPOP are to support sustainable development of our energy and ocean industries and protect marine and coastal environments in the long term and to help establish Canada as one of the leading countries in the field.

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