24 January 2014

The nature of oil and the BP spill: The good, the bad and the ugly

McKenna specializes in examining petroleum that is particularly difficult to refine. She’ll discuss the nature of oil and the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By KATHLEEN LAUFENBERG

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For nearly a decade, chemist Amy McKenna has studied the Earth’s most complex chemical substance: crude oil. On Feb. 4, at the MagLab’s first 2014 Science Café, she’ll discuss the nature of oil and the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Amy McKennaMagLab chemist Amy McKenna works with a sample of oil in the Ion Cyclotron Resonance (ICR) lab.The café talk begins at 6:15 at the Backwoods Bistro in downtown Tallahassee, and wraps up by 7:30 p.m. Arrive early to get a good seat and a bite to eat.

“Oil has been cooked and squeezed in the Earth’s crust for a hundred million years, and it’s the most complex substance we have,” says McKenna, who has a doctorate in analytical chemistry. ”Every oil is unique, which a lot of people don’t realize.”

McKenna specializes in examining petroleum that is particularly difficult to refine, which is the type of oil that is now the easiest to access in those parts of the world that are politically friendly to the U.S. For years, McKenna has used state-of-the-art equipment in the MagLab’s Ion Cyclotron Resonance facility to study some of the toughest problems associated with oil production, such as clogged pipelines and plugged-up refinery equipment.

But when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in April 2010 — killing 11 people and an unknown number of marine animals and releasing roughly 5 million barrels of crude petroleum into the Gulf for 87 days — she began studying oil samples taken from the disastrous spill. Her research on the aftermath of the BP spill has included characterizing samples of petroleum found in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida.

In order to understand the effects of such a massive blowout, scientists had to develop a clear picture of where millions of different spilled oil molecules were going. Some of the oil was consumed by organisms; some of it settled onto the ocean floor; some of it washed up on shorelines and formed tar balls; some of it seeped through beach sand and embedded into lower sediment layers.

“We looked at oil before it was spilled and compared it to oil that reached the beach and percolated through the sand,” she said. “And what we found was that the same molecules of oil that end up on the beach are the same molecules of oil that cause problems in the refineries. These molecules are essentially the toughest kids on the block, and the ones that will remain in the environment.”

That made McKenna’s expertise on how to handle these heavy oil molecules invaluable. Today, scientists continue to research the long-term effects of from the BP spill, and they’re still learning about what happens after such a disaster. But one thing remains clear, McKenna says: More oil spills are inevitable.

Come to Science Café to learn more. And bring your questions!


The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1157490) and the state of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.