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Technology to clean up oil spills

When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, cleanup crews flocked to the scene, but their ability to respond to the spill was limited: they were stuck using the same technology deployed during the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, and the Ixtoc I disaster in 1979. Those outdated, inefficient booms and skimmers could hardly make a dent in the huge spill, so chemical dispersants were used widely, to the detriment of the Gulf’s marine and wildlife habitat and the fishing and tourism industries. Three years later oil and dispersant mixture was found embedded in the sand along the Gulf coast as far east as Tampa Bay.

In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizons disaster, there was a flurry of scientific activity aimed at rectifying this, and several promising technologies were explored. These included the following:

  • Scientists at the University of Michigan proved in 2012 that a smart filter can strain oil out of water, but this technology is still not commercially available.
  • Canadian company Encore3 manufactures milkweed fiber oil clean-up kits. The kits are used in marinas and on boats, and each one can absorb 53 gallons of oil. Deepwater Horizon spilled over 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. You do the math.
  • In 2012 MIT researchers devised a technique to clear up oil spills using magnets, a finding that was confirmed by DoE Fermilab in 2014 and in Australia in 2016. Unfortunately, this technique has still not been adapted for large-scale testing, and there is no timeline for when it might become commercially available.
  • Penn State scientists demonstrated a super absorbent polymer material–known as Petrogel—which is capable of soaking up 40 times its own weight in oil, and can then be shipped to an oil refinery for recovery of the absorbed oil. Even at $30 per barrel, Petrogel can collect more than enough reusable oil to pay for itself twice over, but it’s still several years away from commercial availability.
  • In 2015 Ohio State University developed nano-coated, oil-trapping mesh that could potentially clean oil spills for less than $1 per square foot; however, it is still not commercially available.
  • Sea cleaning drones showed promise in 2012, and more than one design is out there, but there is no large-scale commercial capability available or deployed.
  • In 2011 rangia clams were touted as a potential tool in oil spill cleanup, due to their ability to intake oil-laced water, absorb the oil and spit out clean water. Unfortunately, use of clams to clean up after large oil spills proved untenable.
  • Microsubmarines designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities were successfully tested in 2012, but no one has ever shown that they could work in large-scale oil spills.
  • The Protei project to create autonomous sailboats equipped with oil-sucking booms has been discontinued.
  • Hydrophobic aerogels—are costly and time-consuming to make and have not yet been tested on a large-scale basis.
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The good news: Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge

Philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, head of the Schmidt Family Foundation and a Natural Resources Defense Council board member, knew America could do better. In June 2010 she sponsored the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, promising $1.4 million in prize money for teams that could efficiently recover more than 2,500 gallons of oil per minute in a field test – doubling the industry standard. The prizes were awarded in October 2011, and these technologies are available now.

1st Prize

First prize was awarded to Illinois-based Elastec’s Grooved Disc skimmer, which recovered oil at a rate of 4,760 gallons per minutes and an oil-to-water efficiency rate of 89.5%. If this technology had been available and widely deployed after Deepwater Horizon, the spill could have been contained within a month.
Second prize was awarded to Norwegian-based NOFI’s Current Buster, which recovered oil at a rate of 2,712 gallons per minute and an oil-to-water efficiency rate of 83%.

2nd Prize

Second prize was awarded to Norwegian-based NOFI’s Current Buster, which recovered oil at a rate of 2,712 gallons per minute and an oil-to-water efficiency rate of 83%.

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