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Annual Public Lectures Series > Ponisseril Somasundaran

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 13-17, 2011

Looking Ahead: Developing Alternative Approaches for the Next Oil Spill
Ponisseril Somasundaran
Department of Earth & Environmental Engineering, Columbia University
Summary of comments from June 17

The use of dispersants was widely scrutinized during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The concern was that toxic compounds were being introduced into an environment where they had never before been used; the results were unpredictable.

The work of Dr. Som Somasundaran, professor of environmental engineering at Columbia University, focuses on finding greener solutions for the next oil spill. While popular ideas of sustainability incorporate the United Nations definition, that activities should "meet[s] the needs of the present generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," Somasundaran called for a different approach. Sustainability should, rather, "ensure the needs of the future generations even if we have to forego some of our own perceived needs," according to one of his presentation slides.

Somasundaran presented a brief look at his lab's efforts to develop a novel "nylon sponge" that is able to capture oil in the form of a nylon-oil glob that can be recaptured by compressing the sponge. In this way it is reusable and appropriate for marshland environments where current remediation strategies are ineffective.

Among the wide variety of topics discussed, Somasundaran also included his design plan for greener surfactants. These would be developed with renewable, low toxicity materials, with the goals of providing better performance and controlled biodegradation.

As deep sea oil drilling becomes more prevalent, we can expect to see more spills in the future. Somasundaran argued that further research and development in greener remediation technologies will enable us to mitigate the environmental and ecologic impact of these disasters.

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June 21, 2011