Hydrodynamic Treadmill Reveals Reduced Rising Speeds of Oil Droplets Deformed by Marine Bacteria

Vincent Hickl, Hima Hrithik Pamu, Gabriel Juarez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In marine environments, microscopic droplets of oil can be transported over large distances in the water column. Bacterial growth on the droplets’ surface can deform the oil-water interface to generate complex shapes and significantly enlarge droplets. Understanding the fate of spilled oil droplets requires bridging these length scales and determining how microscale processes affect the large-scale transport of oil. Here, we describe an experimental setup, the hydrodynamic treadmill, developed to keep rising oil droplets stationary in the lab frame for continuous and direct observation. Oil droplets with radii 10 < R < 100 μm were colonized and deformed by bacteria over several days before their effective rising speeds were measured. The rising speeds of deformed droplets were significantly slower than those of droplets without bacteria. This decrease in rising speed is understood by an increase in drag force and a decrease in buoyancy as a result of bio-aggregate formation at the droplet surface. Additionally, we found sinking bio-aggregate particles of oil and bacterial biofilms and quantified their composition using fluorescence microscopy. Our experiments can be adapted to further study the interactions between oil droplets and marine organisms and could significantly improve our understanding of the transport of hydrocarbons and complex aggregates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14082-14089
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number37
StatePublished - Sep 19 2023


  • biodegradation
  • hydrocarbon transport
  • hydrodynamic treadmill
  • oil droplets
  • oil spills
  • oil-degrading bacteria

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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