Auburn scientists await new research tool to measure oil still in Gulf waters


A team of Auburn University scientists is awaiting delivery of a FlowCAM — part microscope and part high-speed camera — as it begins to assess the amount of oil persisting in Gulf waters and its possible long-range effects on seafood.

The project is being funded by $143,000 grant from a National Science Foundation program designed to speed resources to experts studying the oil spill’s environmental impacts.

The laser-illuminated FlowCAM can do real-time water analysis, documenting any remaining oil droplets, according to Auburn biological science researcher

Anthony Moss.

Recording up to 10,000 images a minute, it will also enable scientists to examine the number of tiny planktonic organisms — measuring from 3 microns to 3 millimeters — as well as spot even microscopic oil droplets, Moss said.

Oiled plankton can ultimately pose dangers to humans as popular food fish concentrate plankton-derived petroleum in their tissues, according to Moss.

“We will follow changes in the plankton as the oil disperses,” Moss said.

He said, “This will allow us to predict the impacts of future spills on the coast, and how long the impacts will last.”

Moss is working with Kenneth Halanych and Mark Liles of the College of Sciences and Mathematics and Alan Wilson of the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures in the College of Agriculture.

Moss, who was in Mobile on Thursday for a meeting with other researchers, said he couldn’t offer a verdict, for now, on the safety of Gulf seafood. “I just don’t have the data yet, and ultimately that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

When the FlowCAM arrives in several weeks, the Auburn team will begin doing research off the Alabama coast, starting with areas where the water column is thought to contain little to no oil.

“On the order of a month or two we’ll be able to answer questions in a sensible way,” Moss said. “That’s how fast this instrument is, that’s its job, giving you real-time information.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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