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13-Year-Old Changes Approach to Oil Spill Cleanups

Sep 30, 2014 01:57 PM EDT

One 13-year-old is changing the game of oil spill cleanups with her new approach involving oil-eating bacteria, according to reports.

As part of her science project, Chythanya Murali, an eighth grader from Arkansas, has created a safe, effective, non-conventional method for cleaning oil spills. Bacteria contain enzymes that can break down oil particles and convert it into harmless compounds, a natural process that Murali wants to harness to help marine ecosystems recover more quickly from devastating oil spills.

While neither she, nor her parents seem to have any experience in the field, Murali's ingenius work has earned her the prestigious distinction of being one of only 30 finalists in the Brodcom Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Rising Starts (MASTERS) competition.

Her inspiration for the novel idea came from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels (over 200 gallons) of oil into the region's waters, according to the Smithsonian Institute. As much as 20 percent of the spilled oil may have ended up on top of and in the seafloor, damaging deep sea corals and potentially harming other unseen ecosystems. Other more obvious impacts to the Gulf's wildlife were pelicans slick with oil, increased dolphin strandings, seriously ill sea turtles, and fish belly-up in a pool of thick sludge.

Murali hopes that her improved method, which explored the different mixtures of oil-eating enzymes and bacteria that break down oil, can better protect marine environments from any future spills.

"The combination of bio-additive enzymes and oil-degrading bacteria as a novel combination for short- and long-term cleaning, and its effect on ecosystems was not explored before," she told Business Insider.

The middle-schooler tested her new approach in a small-scale aquarium and discovered that a specific combination of oil-cleaning agents could help remove oil while preserving the health of the overall ecosystem - something that some of today's methods cannot achieve.

Current techniques rely on physical barriers, like floating booms, to contain a spill and keep it from spreading to other sites, skimmers, and dispersants, or chemicals that break down oil into smaller particles that can more easily evaporate and disintegrate. However, the latter can be more harmful than helpful to the environment.

In 2012, a study shockingly found that the oil-cleaning agents, when combined with the oil from the BP spill, proved to be 52 times more toxic to small animals like plankton than oil alone.

Murali hopes her new approach one day can improve upon these already existing, imperfect tactics, and be developed on a commercial scale to clean up oil spills. If she were to win the MASTERS $25,000 prize, she may be able to make her dream a reality.

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