Using Biological and Gelling Agents on Oil Spills

Many different methods are used to deal with oil spills, including booms, skimmers, biological and gelling agents. Each has a function in cleanup and increasing the speed with which the waters and the environment can be returned to a pre-spill state.


Gelling Agents

These chemicals are known as solidifiers because they react with oil to form rubber-like solids. When there is a small spill, the chemicals can be applied by hand and left alone to combine. When there is a large spill, chemicals are applied to the oil spill, mixed in with the force of high pressure streams of water. Once the oil gels, it is removed from the water with nets, by suctioning it up, or skimming it off the surface. Sometimes, this gelled oil is mixed with fuel oil and is reused.


Gelling agents can be used in calm to moderately rough seas as the waves provide sufficient energy to mix the chemicals with the oil. To be successful, a large quantity of gelling agents must be applied – sometimes as much as three times the volume of the spill. If there is a very large oil spill of millions of gallons, it is impractical to store, move or apply the huge quantity of chemicals that are needed to gel the oil.


Biological Agents

These chemicals and organisms increase the rate of the natural biodegradation of oil. This is a process in which bacteria, fungi, and yeast break down complex compounds into simpler products to obtain nutrients and energy. The biodegradation of oil is a slow process which can occur very slowly, taking years to remove oil from the aquatic environment. The rapid removal of spilled oil from shorelines and wetlands is necessary to minimize the potential environmental damage to these sensitive habitats. 


Bioremediation technology can speed up the biodegradation process by adding materials like microorganisms or fertilizers to the environment. Two bioremediation techniques that are currently being used in the US for oil spill cleanups are seeding and fertilization.



This is also known as nutrient enrichment and is the process in which nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are added to a contaminated environment, such as an oil spill. There are generally limited supplies of these nutrients in nature which controls the growth of the native microorganism population. When more nutrients are added, the native microorganisms rapidly increase, potentially increasing the rate of biodegradation of the spilled oil.



This is the addition of microorganisms to the native oil degrading population as some species of bacteria do not naturally exist there. The purpose is to increase the population of microorganisms that can biodegrade the oil spill.


There are other oil spill cleanup agents, all of which must be licensed. The licensing criteria are established on the level of toxicity that the agent imposes. The protocols for the use of these different oil spill cleanup agents (OSCA) are based on the sensitivity of the habitat in which the agent might be used.

Source by Andy Clark

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