Two ingredients commonly found in jars of peanut butter, chocolate smoothies, ice cream, and other tasty food products could soon find a new line of work: Cleaning up oil spills.
Researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi say that lecithin, an ingredient used in non-stick cooking sprays and many food products and cellulose, a compound derived from plants' cell walls that can give ice cream and smoothies a thicker texture, can be used to create an oil dispersant that's safer and more effective than petroleum-based products that are currently used.
According to Lisa Kemp, the researcher responsible for taking the product to market, the university's dispersant, when spread over an oil spill, would allow birds and other animals to simply shake off oil, meaning cleanup crews won't have to manually scrub wildlife.
Current dispersants work by transferring oil from the water's surface into the water column, which can wreak havoc on life underwater. The university's dispersant would break up oil, but would keep it afloat so that cleanup crews could mechanically remove it.
"Use of current dispersants is like choosing the lesser of two evils—you can let the oil sit on the surface of water and impact wildlife, or you can use the dispersant to put it into the water column, where it can come into contact with undersea life it would have never come into contact with otherwise," she says. "We didn't want to add to the problem, so we used ingredients that are all food safe."
Kemp presented her team's research Monday at the annual American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia. The team is currently testing the toxicity of the dispersant, but given that its main ingredients are used in food, it's not expected to be very poisonous.
Because lecithin and cellulose are so widely used, creating the dispersant would likely be cheap and efficient.
"We were careful about the ingredients we used because when an oil spill happens you need very large amounts of dispersant at the snap of a finger," Kemp says. "I think we'll be economically competitive with what's out there now."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com