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Geometry As a Weapon

The announcement: Two Virginia Tech professors received a $60,000 NSF grant to "study how naturally occurring microbes can best be used to eat away remaining crude oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Their choice of weapon: Geometry."

As expected, it caught my attention. What was the role of geometry?

And now, I discover it is somewhat related to an idea known by most middle schoolers and often proven by calculus students.

The known: Fueled by oxygen, naturally occurring bacteria slowly destroy blobs of crude oil without additional chemicals. The key is to maximize the surface area of the blob or slick, so more bacteria will have access.

By geometry, a sphere has minimal surface area for a given volume...while an extended flat surfaces has more surface area for that same volume. Also, though oxygen is needed to maximize the bacterial process, the oxygen supply decreases below water (where much of the sphere would be).

Thus, the two researchers will try to determine if the shape of crude oil blob (i.e. a flat sheet or a ball) actually does affect deterioration rates. Go, geometry!