3 September 2010

Mag Lab researchers analyzing chemical composition of Gulf oil

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With nearly $200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at The Florida State University are using incredibly precise analytical tools housed at the lab to analyze petroleum samples collected from the Gulf of Mexico. Results of those analyses will help determine whether or not the samples originated from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — critical information in predicting where the oil is going.

Amy M. McKenna is an assistant scholar/scientist in the laboratory of Professor Alan G. Marshall, the director of the magnet lab's Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance (FT-ICR) mass spectrometry facility. McKenna is the principal investigator for an NSF Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant titled "Molecular Level Characterization and Archive for the 2010 BP Oil Spill," which will provide $198,790 in funding for one year.

McKenna and her colleagues, including co-principal investigators Marshall and associate scholar/scientist Ryan P. Rodgers, have already begun analyzing samples of raw crude oil, ocean surface samples and tar balls collected by researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at various distances from the Deepwater Horizon site. Also joining the Magnet Lab team is visiting scientist Chang Samuel Hsu, a veteran petroleum researcher who was the key scientist involved in developing analytical methodologies for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

The collaboration with Woods Hole makes for a powerful analytical combination. McKenna said collaborators at Woods Hole are the best at what they do, which is analyzing oil collected from the well head using a technique called chromatography. But once that oil gets spewed out into the open world, it's exposed to the environment, which changes the oil's composition.

"An oil spill changes its chemical composition due to evaporation and dissolution over time," McKenna said. "The incorporation of oxygen into the components makes it difficult for other analytical techniques to characterize the molecules of spilled oil. FT-ICR mass spectrometry is the only technique that can look at these changes at the molecular level without prior, tedious sample preparation."

The team's ultimate goal is to provide a comprehensive compositional archive for all future chemical characterizations of the spill, because the magnet lab's high-powered magnets and custom-built spectrometers are the only tools capable of analyzing the oil on such a precise molecular level.

"We will have a library of what is in there. Then everyone else will know what they're dealing with," said Marshall, FSU's Robert O. Lawton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "The more you know about what it is, the better you can decide what to do about it."

Marshall is widely recognized as having revolutionized the field of chemical analysis. He co-invented and continues to develop FT-ICR mass spectrometry, a powerful analytical procedure capable of resolving and identifying thousands of different chemical components in complex mixtures ranging from petroleum to biological fluids.

In recent years, Marshall's research group has received a great deal of attention for its development of "petroleomics," an entirely new branch of chemistry that seeks to predict the properties and behavior of petroleum and its products.