Technology

Making oil spill damage a thing of the past

 By Mike Scott

The impacts of oil spills—both on the environment and on company share prices–were amply demonstrated by the 2010 Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Improving safety and reducing the environmental impact of accidents has been a prime concern for the industry ever since, but even as other areas of the industry become increasingly technology-focused, dealing with spills has remained a relatively low-tech exercise…

Up to now, spills have been treated mainly using booms that contain the oil or skimmer boats that suck up oil from the water’s surface. The latter is fuel-intensive and neither technique deals with oil under the surface, which is now known to cause considerable damage to marine life. However, recent breakthroughs could significantly reduce the impact of future oil spills at sea.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 (NASA)

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab has developed a carbon nanotube mesh that, when treated with minerals and polymers, acts as a sponge to soak up oil both on the surface and underwater. Once the material is saturated, the oil contained within it can be recovered by applying heat, electricity or UV light. The group has just been awarded $1.7 million by Natural Resources Canada to scale up the technology. Meanwhile, US company HalenHardy has developed a fiber compound that enables four to 10 times as much spill response material to be stored as traditional spill products and absorbs oil and fuels between three and five times faster than traditional booms and socks.

Skimmer boats (U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Cassandra Thompson)

“For nearly five decades sorbent booms have not changed very much,” says CEO Donny Beaver. “Most sorbent booms are designed the same way–like a big, overstuffed sausage filled, crammed with oil-only melt-blown, cellulose, duck feathers, wool, cattails … even human hair.”
These booms are bulky to store and move around, time-consuming to deploy, inefficient to store and usually not very absorbent, he adds. The company’s latest product uses lightweight, highly compressible oil-sorbent sheets that can be squeezed into packages a quarter of their original volume, reducing storage and transportation space and allowing for new “flat-boom” configurations that are more efficient than round sorbent booms and deploy 40 times quicker than traditional sorbent booms. Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that not only easily absorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.

Oil sheen and oil-soaked sorbent boom and hard boom (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region)

“The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all,” says co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. Oleo Sponge could also help to remove diesel and oil from shipping traffic in harbors and ports. Other innovations include an early detection system created by Spanish researchers that uses the way crude oil absorbs light to detect a spill and a new oil-burning technology recently tested by the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Oil spills are an inevitable part of the industry, but these innovations give hope that when they do happen, their impacts can be much smaller than in the past.

SEE MORE: Innovations for oil spills by Amanda Saint

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.