A new model for the biodegradation kinetics of oil droplets: application to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Javier Vilcáez, Li Li, Susan S Hubbard
Geochemical Transactions 2013, 14 (1): 4
Oil biodegradation by native bacteria is one of the most important natural processes that can attenuate the environmental impacts of marine oil spills. Existing models for oil biodegradation kinetics are mostly for dissolved oil. This work developed a new mathematical model for the biodegradation of oil droplets and applied the model to estimate the time scale for oil biodegradation under conditions relevant to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In the model, oil is composed of droplets of various sizes following the gamma function distribution. Each oil droplet shrinks during the microbe-mediated degradation at the oil-water interface. Using our developed model, we find that the degradation of oil droplets typically goes through two stages. The first stage is characterized by microbial activity unlimited by oil-water interface with higher biodegradation rates than that of the dissolved oil. The second stage is governed by the availability of the oil-water interface, which results in much slower rates than that of soluble oil. As a result, compared to that of the dissolved oil, the degradation of oil droplets typically starts faster and then quickly slows down, ultimately reaching a smaller percentage of degraded oil in longer time. The availability of the water-oil interface plays a key role in determining the rates and extent of degradation. We find that several parameters control biodegradation rates, including size distribution of oil droplets, initial microbial concentrations, initial oil concentration and composition. Under conditions relevant to the Deepwater Horizon spill, we find that the size distribution of oil droplets (mean and coefficient of variance) is the most important parameter because it determines the availability of the oil-water interface. Smaller oil droplets with larger variance leads to faster and larger extent of degradation. The developed model will be useful for evaluating transport and fate of spilled oil, different remediation strategies, and risk assessment.

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