UNO Professor Awarded Grant to Study How Sunlight Transforms Oil

University of New Orleans professor Matthew Tarr has been awarded a research grant from the BP-sponsored Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) to study how sunlight transforms oil. Tarr is a professor and chair of the chemistry department at UNO. 

The project, “Effect of Photochemistry on Biotransformation of Crude Oil,” will study how sunlight interacts with oil to change the composition of the oil, how such changes affect the toxicity of the oil and how sunlight changes how easily oil can be degraded by natural microorganisms. 

The project, with an anticipated budget of $1.47 million over three years, is a collaboration among Tarr, Russell Schmehl (Tulane University), Joseph Suflita (the University of Oklahoma) and Amy Callaghan (the University of Oklahoma). Tarr will serve as the team leader, but the research efforts will be divided equally among the collaborators. 

At the University of New Orleans, the project will also involve one graduate student and one undergraduate student. UNO will also involve high school students and high school teachers in the research during the summer months. Additional undergraduate and graduate students will work at Tulane and the University of Oklahoma. Involving students at all levels will help to educate scientists who will contribute to solving future problems related to energy and the environment.

When oil is exposed to sunlight, the energy from the sun can cause chemical reactions to occur. The most active portion of sunlight is ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which also causes sunburn. Sunlight can lead to chemical reactions in the oil that allows the oil to degrade faster. The products of these processes can be more easily degraded by natural organisms (biodegradation), but some of the products can also be more toxic to bacteria and other organisms. 

In this project, the research team will study the chemical transformations caused by sunlight as well as how these transformations affect biological systems. Overall, the project will provide a better understanding of what happens to oil that is floating on the surface of seawater as it ages under natural conditions. Such information can help assess the impacts of an oil spill and provide better tools for cleaning up a spill. 

GoMRI evaluated 336 research proposals and selected only 19 of them to be funded. These projects are part of $500 million that BP has committed to fund independent research related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Funding for this project will begin in October. 

In addition to conducting research with graduate students, Tarr also serves as UNO’s director of undergraduate research. Since 2002, he has coordinated summer research programs for high school students and teachers as part of the UNO Advanced Materials Research Institute’s Outreach Program.