The Dispersion Research on Oil: Physics and Plankton Studies (DROPPS) consortium brings together complementing experts from seven institutions in order to investigate and model several key processes involved with the dispersion of oil spills and interactions of oil with marine organisms. The experimental and numerical studies will be performed at varying scales and levels of complexity, from bench-top studies that characterize specific phenomena to meso-scale experiments that are essential for mimicking realistic physical and biological conditions. We will investigate the breakup of crude oil patches into droplets, and the resulting droplet size distributions under several important conditions, such as sub-surface plumes, under breaking waves, and in turbulent flows.
Complementary fundamental studies will focus on characterizing and modeling complex interfacial processes that cause the breakup of droplets in the presence of dispersants and bacterial colonies. Measurements will be performed with several oil properties and origins, as well as with varying concentrations of dispersants. We will measure and model the transport of oil droplet in turbulent flows, including settling and dispersion/diffusion rates, their encounter rate with marine particles and bubbles, and the effect of attachment to particles on agglomeration and subsequent transport of the petroleum. The interaction of oil with hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria at oil-water interfaces will also be investigated, including formation and growth colonies on surfaces, consumption rates, genetic traits of oil consuming bacteria and resulting changes to the oil properties.
We will also investigate, quantify and model the interaction of suspended oil droplets and surface oil patches with several species of marine phytoplankton and zooplankton, and with natural plankton assemblages, quantifying how planktonic organisms interact with minute oil droplets, their consumption of oil droplets and effects of these plankton on the fate of this dispersed oil. The results will be incorporated into a meso-scale model for predicting the transport and fate of oil spills. The studies will be performed in a series of specialized facilities that vary in scales from microfluidic cells and small plankton chambers, to intermediate facilities designed study specific physical phenomenon, and to large wave breaking tanks.
The measurements will be performed using state-of-the-art analytic instruments, as well as advanced three-dimensional imaging techniques. These studies are designed to provide data sets/predictive models to assess the dispersal and fate of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.