LSU AgCenter scientists are working with researchers at Columbia University and Iowa State University on an environmentally friendly substance that could be used to clean up oil spills.

Andy Nyman, an LSU AgCenter wetlands biologist, and Chris Green, an LSU AgCenter toxicologist, are testing the chemical’s toxicity on killifish, a baitfish known more commonly in Louisiana as cocahoe minnows. The $211,000 project is being funded for three years by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

The project came in reaction to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the recognized need for a more effective, yet environmentally friendly dispersant.

The work focuses on developing less-toxic materials, called surfactants, which are important ingredients in many household products and in oil spill dispersants. Chemicals are classified as surfactants if they have surface properties that allow them to help oil and water mix.

Iowa State researchers are making a new surfactant through a fermentation process using bacteria, soybean wastes and bagasse. Iowa State researchers are working to make the fermentation more efficient, Nyman said, while Columbia researchers are studying the effectiveness of the surfactant’s potential to disperse crude oil.

The oil spill dispersant used now is known by its proprietary name Corexit. It is toxic to marine life. But oil that has been dispersed with Corexit is even more toxic, and its toxicity is longer lasting, possibly as long as six months based on laboratory studies.

The research will not produce immediate results that can soon be used commercially, Nyman said. “This is very preliminary research. I think we’re a decade or two away from seeing something in the marketplace. But I hope I’m wrong.”

Green has been testing the toxicity of more common surfactants and household products, such as dishwashing detergent, on killifish to help non-scientists relate to toxicity data. But those results are not yet published.

Killifish is a good species for testing because it adapts to a wide range of salinity, and other scientists have used it for toxicity testing.

The material being produced by Iowa State researchers should be available by late December or early January.

LSU AgCenter and Sea Grant coastal ecologist Brian LeBlanc said his role in the project is to inform the public in coastal areas about the project and potential benefits of developing safer dispersants.

A mobile lab is planned for 2013 to demonstrate the toxic effects of current surfactants, crude oil and common household detergents using fish and possibly invertebrate larvae.

“We’re not trying to say the use of dispersants was necessarily a bad thing, in some situations they may be needed,” LeBlanc explained. “We’re simply trying to develop less toxic more effective methods of dispersing oil.”