Michel Boufadel and his team will return to Alaska this May to continue research.
Nicole Devine, an engineering graduate student, said participating in research in Alaska has “literally changed” her life.
Devine, who met her husband as an undergraduate student on a three-week trip in 2009, completed a majority of the field gathering work during one of many trips Dr. Michel Boufadel and his team have taken to Prince William Sound in Alaska.
Boufadel, the chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection, has led a team of researchers and students to Prince William Sound since 2007. In May, they will return to Alaska to continue their work.
Boufadel and his team have been studying the reasons nearly 20,000 gallons of crude oil remain trapped between levels of sand along the beach after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil.
“Cleanup activity started immediately after the spill,” Boufadel said. “In 1992, the decision was made to stop the cleanup.”
In 2004, Boufadel said, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a study that found approximately 60 to 100 tons of oil in certain beaches in Prince William Sound.
This May, Boufadel and his team will return to Alaska to test a way to make the oil disappear.
Boufadel explained that the sand had two layers, an upper layer that was more permeable allowing water to move through it quickly, and a lower layer that is less permeable. In 2009, Boufadel and his team found that low oxygen levels in parts of the beach prevent bacteria from breaking down the oil, so the oil gets trapped between the two levels.
In an effort to make the oil biodegradable, Boufadel and his team will inject hydrogen peroxide and “other nutrients” into the beaches in the Sound. The goal is that the hydrogen peroxide will break down into oxygen, which will allow bacteria to grow and speed up how fast the oil biodegrades.
“We got to that stage, and we went to the funding agency, and we said, ‘OK,’ so at least from an engineering point of view, there’s a way you can biodegrade these beaches. They said, ‘OK,’” Boufadel said.
Boufadel recently won a $1.5 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to continue his work in Alaska. Previously, Boufadel’s team had won a $1.7 million grant for its work.
Boufadel has taken approximately 30 undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students to Alaska. In addition to engineering students, some of the students participating have been environmental science and chemistry majors.
“We always look for students [with] different disciplines [because] they add new knowledge,” Boufadel said. “I always like that – to have different students of different backgrounds.”
“I did all of the field gathering of data, so I took pictures [and] wrote everything down,” Devine said.
Devine, who called the experience enjoyable, said she learned a lot in Alaska, and that the work has opened a lot of doors for her.
“[The trip to Alaska] made me interested in environmental engineering,” Devine, whose background was initially in chemistry, said.
Valerie Rubinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.