A 13-Year-Old Has Invented A Completely New Approach To Cleaning Up Oil Spills



Chythanya Murali

Chythanya Murali with her science fair poster.

This 13-year-old is trying to save the world one ecosystem at a time.


Chythanya Murali, an eighth grader from Arkansas, has created a safe, effective, non-conventional method to clean oil spills, by harnessing the cleaning properties of bacteria - specifically the enzymes they use to break down oil particles. These enzymes disassemble oil molecules, making way for the bacteria to convert it into harmless compounds.

Advances in oil clean up are dearly needed. Right now, the mixtures of oil-cleaning enzymes that we use can be more harmful than helpful to the environment. In 2012, a study found a chilling discovery about the oil-cleaning agents dispersed in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. When combined with the oil itself, the resulting mixture was 52 times more toxic to small animals like plankton than oil alone.

In fact, it was this very same spill that motivated Murali to make a difference. "My inspiration for this project began [from] the immense damage caused by the BP oil spill in early 2010."

Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill_ _May_24,_2010

NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response

Sunlight illuminated the lingering oil slick off the Mississippi Delta on May 24, 2010.

To improve oil-cleaning methods, Murali designed a science fair project that explored the different mixtures of oil-eating enzymes and oil-breaking-down bacterias, to see how they effect the marine environment.

"The combination of bio-additive enzymes and oil-degrading bacteria as a novel combination for short and long-term cleaning, and its effect on ecosystems was not explored before," Murali told Business Insider.


So it only seemed natural to Murali to combine the two and see what happened. She discovered that in a small-scale aquarium, the combination of her chosen oil-cleaning agents could help remove oil while preserving the health of the overall ecosystem, something that some of the oil-cleaning agents we use today cannot achieve.

Murali hopes her new approach can be further developed and one day, help clean up oil spills. Earlier this month, her science fair oil-breakdown project won her a position as a Broadcom Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering Rising Stars (MASTERS) finalist. She is one of 30 Broadcom MASTERS finalists in the country.

Murali has yet to apply her mixture on a large scale to test its commercial potential, so she might run into trouble scaling up the project.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Oil spill response actions near drill site May 27, 2010.

"I did not have the funding to conduct this on a larger scale, so it would need more time and support... to see if it works in in vivo conditions," she said. "Afterwards, this novel combination of biological agents can be used to clean oil spills in real world scenarios."

If she won this year's Broadcom MASTERS grand prize of $25,000, that would certainly help bring her closer to that goal.