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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Zheng Wang, Civil Engineering

Occurrence and transport of pollutants from spilled oil and microplastics in the coastal areas

Friday, November 24, 2023
2:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Nadeem Butt


Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex
1515 St. Catherine W.
Room 003.309



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


The coast is a complex environment that comprises seawater, underwater, soil, atmosphere, and other environmental factors. Traditional and new pollutants, represented by oil spills and microplastics (MPs), persist in posing a constant threat to the ecosystems and social-economic features of coastal regions. Besides, the shoreline is exposed to various environment conditions, which may significantly affect the behaviors of pollutants on beaches. An in-depth understanding of the occurrence and fate of pollutants in coastal areas is a prerequisite for the development of sound prevention and remediation strategies. Firstly, the physicochemical behavior of crude oil on various types of shorelines under different environmental conditions were reviewed. The penetration, remobilization and retention of stranded oil on shorelines are affected by the beach topography and the natural environment. The attenuation and fate of oil on shorelines from laboratory and field experiments were discussed. In addition, the source, type, distribution, and factors of MPs in the coastal areas were summarized. What is more, the occurrence and environmental risk of emerging plastics waste—personal protective equipment (PPE)—in the coastal environment during and pandemic were discussed.

Then, the role of natural nanobubbles (NBs) in the fate and transport of spilled oil were investigated through laboratory experiments and model simulations. NBs significantly increased the concentration of dissolved oxygen as well as changed the pH, zeta potential, and surface tension of the water. With the assistance of external energy, the bulk NBs enhanced the efficiency in oil detachment from the surface of the substrate. At the same time, the surface NBs on the substrate obstructed the downward transport of oil colloids. Considering the behavior between the NBs in two different phases and the oil droplets, the oil droplets tended to bind to the NBs.

Next, the behavior and movement of various MPs in the presence of bulk NBs was explored. In the presence of NBs, the binding of MPs and NBs resulted in an increase in the measured average particle size and concentration. The velocity of motion of MPs driven by NBs varies under different salinity conditions. The increase in ionic strength reduced the energy barrier between particles and promoted their aggregation. Thus, the binding of NBs and MPs became more stable, which in turn affected the movement of MPs in the water. Polyethylene (PE1) with small particle size was mainly affected by Brownian motion and its rising was limited, therefore polyethylene (PE2) with large particle size rose faster than PE1 in suspension, especially in the presence of NBs.

The natural NBs in influencing the vertical movement of MPs in coastal tidal zones under wave conditions was further studied. The motion of MPs under steady-state and transient conditions, as well as the upward transport induced with high-tide were considered. Salinity altered the energy barriers between particles, which in turn affected the movement of MPs within the matrix. In addition, hydrophilic MPs were more likely to infiltrate within the substrate and had different movement patterns under both steady-state and transient conditions. The motion of the MPs within the substrate varied with flow rate, and NBs limited the vertical movement of MPs in the tidal zone. It was also observed that NBs adsorbed readily onto substrates, altering the surface properties of substrates, particularly their ability to attach and detach from other substances.

Finally, the changing characteristics and environmental behaviors of PPE wastes when exposed to the shoreline environment were examined. The transformation of chain structure and chemical composition of masks and gloves as well as the decreased mechanical strength after UV weathering were observed. In addition, the physical abrasion caused by sand further exacerbated the release of MPs and leachable hazardous contaminates from masks and gloves. The study results indicate that coastal are not only the main receptor of pollutants from oceans and lands, but also play host to further transformation.

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