Gulf oil spill disaster: a closer look at the clean-up options
By Ben Coxworth
May 25, 2010
The damaged Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is a huge environmental disaster that's said to be gushing anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean per day. BP has deployed a reported 2.5 million feet of oil booms in an effort to contain the slick, as well as bringing in over 1,100 vessels to skim it and even burning some of it off the water’s surface. One need only watch the news, however, to realize that some other ideas are needed. The Associated Press recently reported that BP has received over 10,000 suggestions for dealing with the disaster, and is looking into approximately 700. Many businesses have also taken this opportunity to promote their oil-spill-clean-up products, in hopes that they will be used in the Gulf. What follows is a look at some - but by no means all - of those products, and what they would supposedly do to the oil.
Soak it upBP has already been using floating polyethylene pads in an effort to sop up the oil, but several companies have suggested that other substances might work better. Low-impact, inexpensive plant-based materials that have been proposed include a hyper-absorbent type of peat moss, as offered by Kallak Torvstrøfabrikk, and hay, as offered by CW Roberts Contracting.
S.E. Squared, Inc. has proposed the use of its blown fiberglass product, InsulSorb. The fiberglass has been treated to repel water but absorb oil, so it could be sprayed from a boat or plane onto the slick, where it would soak up oil without becoming waterlogged - supposedly it could even be recycled, after having the oil wrung out. S.E. Squared says that because the fiberglass is made from sand and rock, it would be environmentally-neutral.
Thermablok makes pretty much all the same claims regarding its aerogel insulating material. It also suggests that once contained within the aerogel (which is silica-based, like fiberglass), the oil could be set ablaze and burned away, leaving the aerogel unharmed and ready to soak up more.
One of the more unusual proposals involves using human hair to soak up the oil. Hair does have natural oil-absorbent qualities, so San Francisco-based charity Matter of Trust has been soliciting and receiving donations of human and animal hair from salons and groomers all over the world. Some of this hair is stuffed into donated nylon leggings, for use in slick-containing booms. The rest is made into mats that can be laid on the water’s surface, or used for mopping up oil on the shore. These mats are usually made in China by OttiMat, which is allowing the charity to produce them Stateside for the oil spill.
Spin it out of the water
Enviro Voraxial Technology (EVT) builds a product known as a Voraxial Separator. Although the name sounds like something that could strip Superman of his powers, this device actually separates liquids with different specific gravities through centrifugal force, by spinning them at high speeds. It has been shown to effectively separate oil from water, leaving the water at EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards. EVT proposes that their separators could be mounted on the decks of ships, and taken out into the slick.
Solidify itAt least two companies claim that when applied to the slick, their products would turn the oil into a solid, floating substance that would be much easier to pick up. One of these products, C.I.Agent, contains non-toxic polymers that bond with hydrocarbon molecules. When added to crude oil floating on water, the granules transform the oil into a rubber-like material that can be lifted out by hand. C.I.Agent currently is being tried by BP, with plans for the resulting rubbery goop to be used in the production of asphalt.
Amira EET markets Arch-Microbes, which is a blend of naturally-occurring microbes found in deep ocean vents. These microorganisms consume petroleum and produce oxygen, thus apparently repairing ocean dead zones as they clean up pollutants. Once the oil has all been consumed, the microbes die off. Amira claims that Arch-Microbes were successfully used on a large-scale oil spill in 1990.
Osprey Biotechnics offers bacteria that are said to do much the same thing. The company estimates that 100 55-gallon drums of their Munox product could treat 4000 square miles of ocean.
Break it downDispersants work by weakening the oil/water interface, then breaking the oil into tiny droplets which will sink and be carried away in the water column. From there, the idea is that they will be consumed by bacteria already present in the ocean, although some environmental impact on mid- and lower-water organisms would still be possible. Dispersants could also be applied underwater, at the well head, to keep the oil from ever reaching the surface.
Nalco makes a dispersant called COREXIT, which has already been tried in the Gulf with good results and “limited environmental impact.” It is made up of chemicals not unlike those found in dish washing detergent, and has been deemed safe by the EPA. Green Earth Technologies and Organic Miracle sell dispersants made with all-natural plant-based ingredients, and have been trying to get BP to use them on the spill.
Displace it with another type of slick
Aquatain Products has just launched a silicone-based liquid product called Gladiator. When poured onto the ocean’s surface, Gladiator should form a thin but resilient slick that will displace and concentrate the oil, making it easier to collect. The company suggests that it could also be spread along sensitive areas of the shoreline, to keep the oil from reaching land. The silicone slick would reportedly be environmentally-safe, degrading into silicates within a few days.
Skim it up... better
Extreme Spill Technology (EST) has designed what it claims is a better type of oil-skimming vessel. Regular oil-skimming boats guide the surface water in with a wide V-shaped opening known as a V-sweep, then use conveyor belts to lift off the oil. According to EST, those V-sweeps and conveyor belts can be damaged by impact with large waves, which will also scatter the oil and keep it from being skimmed. In EST's system, no V-sweep is used, and the water and oil are pulled into an “oil entrapment chamber” that is not affected by wave action. Electronic sensors in the chamber detect the presence of oil, and will automatically activate pumps (not conveyor belts) to remove it.