An LSU AgCenter soil scientist has been working on a project to help detect oil and other hydrocarbons in soil, and it could be used with the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

“We started this project two years ago,” said David Weindorf, assistant professor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences.

Weindorf has been working with fellow soil scientists Christine Morgan of Texas Agrilife Research and John Galbraith of Virginia Tech on the spectroradiometer. The device can be carried into the field to detect the presence of hydrocarbons in soil by measuring wavelengths of reflected infrared light. Soil contaminated with hydrocarbons reflects less light.

“It’s accurate down to very low levels of contamination,” Weindorf said.

It can be used in the field, but Weindorf said similar approaches might be possible via aircraft or a satellite to precisely map the oil’s spread.

The spectroradiometer could be useful for remediation experts to set priorities for what areas along the coast should be addressed first, Weindorf said. And it could be used to determine how much of the hydrocarbons have volatilized into the atmosphere over time, he said.

Weindorf got the idea for using the device on soil while attending a conference where the spectroradiometer was displayed. He said he never imagined it might have an application for oil pollution that has hit the Gulf.

“I am eager for people to grab onto this and use it,” he said.

Weindorf and his research team tested the device in Louisiana at small oil spills, including the site of a collision of two vessels near New Orleans on the Mississippi River.

They had planned to continue the work this year to establish a database of readings for different forms of hydrocarbons, such as diesel, gasoline and crude oil, but funding has become a problem.

The first year of the research was done with $51,000 from the Louisiana Applied Oil Spill Research and Development Program. “The second year we were expecting more, but statewide budget cuts have constrained research spending,” he said.

The oil spill program did not solicit requests for continued research funding, money that would have funded the creation of a database of the different spectral signatures for various hydrocarbons.

He said a third year of funding could have been used to test the approach using remotely sensed data from airplane or satellite sources.

“We are pursuing additional lines of funding for research,” he said.

The research findings were presented at the Clean Gulf 2009 conference in New Orleans and last year’s annual meeting of the Soil Science Society of America. The results also are published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality.

e-mail: bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu