On April 20, 2010, the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and releasing as much as 5 million barrels of crude oil into the sea. It is believed that as many as 53,000 barrels of oil a day flowed from the broken well until BP was able to stem the release on July 15, 2010. It was the biggest offshore spill in U.S. history. But perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the cleanup. As experts noted at the time of the disaster, widespread oil spill cleanup technology had not advanced much in the 20 years since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
Fortunately, new advances have appeared on the horizon. Here are six innovative ways experts hope will make the next oil spill less tragic.
1. A clay sponge to draw out oil and leave water behind
We reach for a sponge to clean up spills in our kitchens, so imagine what a giant one could do for a spill. While it seems like science fiction, researchers at Case Western Reserve University have developed a super-lightweight clay sponge to draw out oil from contaminated water. The extracted oil could then be recycled. The substance, which experts are calling an aerogel, is a freeze-dried mixture of clay with a polymer and air. It works in freshwater, salt water and on plain surfaces. Researchers are developing the sponge for further tests. You can learn more about aerogel here.
2. One boat to out-skim them all
Booms and skimmers are popular cleanup devices currently used in oil spills, but skimming cannot be done in rough, windy seas, nor is it effective at night when visibility is low. However, the company Extreme Spill Technology has developed a high-speed skimming vessel that the company claims can solve these issues. While traditional skimmers cannot successfully operate in waves higher than 1.5 meters, EST’s boat can skim in waves higher than 3 meters. The lightweight vehicles can operate faster than traditional skimmers, and the machines do not clog as easily. The boat has been successfully tested by the Canadian Coast Guard. As CEO David Prior shared with MNN, the company plans to sell the boats worldwide.
3. Magnetic soap may clean tainted water
One of the main “cleaners” on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were dispersants. As we previously reported, almost 3 million liters of dispersants and soaps were used in the cleanup. However, dispersants are problematic because they do not easily break down in the environment. Scientists from the University of Bristol have developed a new, iron-rich salty soap that reacts to magnetic forces once it is in the water. The salts form a magnetic core when placed in a solution. When a magnetic force is applied, the core — with the oil — rises to the surface of the water. The research is still theoretical, but experts hope that it's the first step toward a new, important cleaning formula.
4. A special skimmer with groove technology
After the 2010 spill, Wendy Schmidt, president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to create clean energy solutions, launched the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. The $1.4 million competition encouraged the best and brightest in the field of oil cleanup to present their solutions. The winner was Elastec/American Marine, an Illinois-based company that developed a kind of barrel skimmer than can separate oil from water, even in waves. The skimmer met the contest’s minimum requirement of an efficiency rate of 70 percent, skimming as much as 2,500 gallons per minute. You can watch a video about the skimmer here.
5. Kevin Costner’s oil filtration machine
When you think of Kevin Costner and water, you might picture the Oscar-winning actor sporting gills and swimming around an underwater ski lift. (See the actor’s 1995 watery post-apocalyptic film, "Waterworld.") However, it was the Gulf oil spill that revealed Costner’s greener side. Alongside his scientist brother Dan, Costner debuted an oil-filtration device that had been in development for more than a decade. As we previously reported, Costner has invested $26 million of his own money into a device that works on a centrifuge principle, separating and jettisoning clean water from oil.
In 2011, it was revealed that British Petroleum had spent $16 million on the devices, even though they were shown to have failed initial field tests. While the devices show some promise, they became easily clogged with the heavier, sticker oils once in the field.
6. Peat moss mixture cleans up
Nature may soon mop up after our spills. Scientists in Norway have discovered that simple peat moss is an extremely good at absorbing oil. The company Kallak Torvstrøfabrikk is developing a product called Kallak Absorbent, which can be placed directly into the oil-soaked water. Ragnar Kallak, the company's founder, explained it to Science Daily: “[Peat moss] absorbs the oil on contact and encapsulates it. Water does not penetrate the peat moss, so the encapsulated oil is trapped in a non-sticky crust which is easily removed from the surface of the water.” Kallak Absorbent was deemed a success against a 2009 oil spill off the coast of Norway.