27 June 2005

New software able to track causes of oil spills and pollutants

Authorities now have a new tool to help nail culprits responsible for oil spills and other chemical pollutants, an international chemistry conference will hear.

Details of new computer software that will help to analyse more accurately the source of pollution will be presented at the Connect 2005 conference of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, to be held in Sydney next month.

When an environmental regulator wants to find out whether a tanker is the source of an oil slick, it collects oil samples from the tanker and the slick to try and work out if they match.

But an Australian analytical chemist, who has developed the new software, says that turns out not to be easy.

"[The samples] are never quite the same," says Professor Bryn Hibbert of Sydney's University of New South Wales.

"By the time the oil's got onto the beach it's changing all the time because of the environment. It's weathering, as we call it."

Current methods rely on an expert profiling hundreds of different chemical compounds in the oil samples and then comparing chemical profiles.

"They look at it and then the expert stands up in court and says, 'In my professional opinion these two come from the same source'," he says.

Calculating the probability
Hibbert is taking a different approach, based on using statistical analysis to calculate the probability of samples coming from a particular source.

He uses a database of chemical profiles of oil samples, and using a famous statistical theorem known as Bayes' theorem, comes up with the probability of a match.

Hibbert says the theorem was originally developed in the 1700s by Reverend Thomas Bayes, when he was trying to work out the probability that God existed.

The research was government funded and Hibbert worked with what was then the New South Wales environment protection agency to develop the software.

Hibbert says the software may help regulatory agencies to more cost-effectively prosecute polluters, and can be applied to other fields including forensics.

Part of the research was published earlier this year in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

Source: abc.net.au


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