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Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi
News Release
Thursday, August 14, 2014

Researchers Develop New Method for Oil Detection in Water

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A new method for detecting oil degradation in the water long after the spill has disappeared from the surface provides another tool for researchers studying long-term environmental impacts.

Xinping Hu, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and his team looked at subsurface Gulf of Mexico coastal waters, using samples collected from 2006 to 2012. The team was able to focus on comparing water samples near the site of the 2010 Deepwater Horizons oil spill.

The first-of-its-kind research provides a new indicator for detecting oil in subsurface water, and could be used to determine the spread of impact from spills once the oil has disappeared from the surface.

“If this type of incidence occurs again, we can go out and use this method to study the subsurface water and see if the oil degradation signal is present in the water even after it can no longer be seen by the naked eye,” Hu said. “Oil in the water can do a lot of damage to sea life. If you know it is there, you have to study the consequences.”

Under normal circumstances, marine microbes release carbonate dioxide (CO2) as they feed on oxygen from decomposing phytoplankton. This produces a known ratio of CO2 production and oxygen (O2) consumption.

Hu said that ratio changes when microbes are consuming petroleum.

“We can tell if microbes are using oxygen from plankton-derived carbon or from the carbon in petroleum,” he said.

The researchers published their study online in the January 2014 issue of Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography.  It was also featured in June at the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative

Analysis of samples showed four sites at 20-50 meter depth to the west of the Mississippi River mouth in 2010 that had different CO2:O2 ratios. The same spots in both 2011 and 2012 suggested the area was likely free from oil influence.

But Hu cautions that oil residue may still be present in the sediments, something other scientists are studying.

“It is all part of the study of the environmental impact of the disaster,” he said.

The research, done in partnership with colleagues from the University of Delaware, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and University of Texas Marine Science Institute, was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hu plans further research in this area, examining the carbon cycle in the Gulf, how quickly carbon is put in and removed from the water; and the carbon connection between fertilizer and the growing hypoxia zone seen every summer in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

About the College of Science and Engineering: The College of Science and Engineering offers cutting-edge programs supported by award-winning faculty deeply-invested in education and the growth and continuation of knowledge from one generation to the next. As one of the leading institutions for coastal, marine, and environmental research, the College is committed to maintaining an academic environment in which students develop as dynamic professionals who will make significant contributions to society. The College is the academic home of faculty endowed by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, one of the foremost leaders in the support and advancement of the long-term use and conservation of the world’s ninth largest body of water. The College also houses the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, a center of geospatial research and coastal monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico and the Center for Coastal Studies, recognized internationally for research in harmful algae and their toxins.

About Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi: Offering more than 60 of the most popular degree programs in the state, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has proudly provided a solid academic reputation, renowned faculty, and highly-rated degree programs since 1947.  The Island University has earned its spot as a premier doctoral-granting institution, supporting two institutes and 13 research centers and labs. Discover your island at


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