CEE's Eric Adams wins the Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry

October 21, 2010

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Eric Adams, lecturer and senior research engineer in CEE, was awarded the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry for disproving the adage that oil and water don’t mix. Adams and his co-investigators Scott Socolofsky S.M. ’97, Ph.D. '01 and Stephen Masutani shared the prize with British Petroleum, one of the funders of a research project completed in 2000 that demonstrated that most oil from a spill in the deep ocean would in fact mix with water, rather than rise directly to the surface.

The Ig Nobels are awarded each year by Improbable Research, a local organization that inspires an appreciation for science and scientists by poking fun at research that, on the surface, appears frivolous or just plain funny. But this year, the selections for chemistry and economics displayed a deeper irony. Improbable Research ostensibly rewarded BP — whose Deepwater Horizon rig earlier this year spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months, greatly harming plant and wildlife and the region’s economy — for proving beyond a doubt what had already been demonstrated, and the heads of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar — whose companies played a role in the recent economic meltdown — for innovative investment strategies.

In a ceremony held Sept. 30 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, Adams, Socolofsky and Masutani good-naturedly accepted their award. “It’s too bad BP couldn’t be with us. But in their stead and with no disrespect to either party, we bring you Steve,” Adams said, referring to Masutani, a professor at the University of Hawaii who was dressed as the “Star Wars” tyrannical ruler Emperor Palpatine, carrying a sign that said “Big Oil.”

The research for which Adams and his co-investigators won the Ig Nobel was part of the Deep Spill Joint Industry Project, funded by the U.S. Minerals Management Service and 23 oil companies. The centerpiece of the project was a pair of experimental oil spills conducted by SINTEF, a Norwegian research institution. In these tests, oil mixed with methane was released near the seafloor at a depth of 840 meters off the Norwegian coast, and monitored with an array of instruments including remotely operated vehicles. The results demonstrated what Adams and Socolofsky’s laboratory experiments conducted earlier in the project had already shown. Rather than form a simple plume that would carry the oil directly to the surface, most of the oil would mix with seawater and stratify into horizontal layers with water of the same density.

As Adams put it: “First Steve showed in laboratory experiments that oil spewing up from the deep ocean floor would form small droplets. Then I showed that those droplets would get smaller if a chemical dispersant were added to the oil plume at its source. Then Scott and I showed that ocean currents and water density differences would cause the small droplets to leave the plume and stratify.

“You could say that BP should have known – based on a study it helped fund — that much of the oil would not rise directly to the surface,” Adams said. During this year’s Deepwater Horizon spill, BP officials implied the opposite.

In his acceptance speech at Sanders Theatre, Socolofsky, a professor at Texas A&M University, said, “It’s probably better that the oil stay subsurface where it can be degraded by microbes. Keeping it subsurface also keeps it away from marine life and coastal marshes.”

The Ig Nobels were presented by Nobel laureates, including Professor Frank Wilczek, who received the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. A video of this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is posted on YouTube.com. Adams, Socolofsky and Masutani have their 15 minutes of fame (actually, only two) about an hour and 35 minutes into the video. The three researchers also joined the other Ig Nobel winners in giving research presentations on the MIT campus Oct. 2.