Environment

Gulf oil spill disaster: a closer look at the clean-up options

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well
BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well
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BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well
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BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well
Enviro Voraxial Technology's Voraxial Separator
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Enviro Voraxial Technology's Voraxial Separator
Green Earth Technology's G-MARINE dispersant
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Green Earth Technology's G-MARINE dispersant
Thermablok's aerogel material
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Thermablok's aerogel material
Matter of Trust's hair-stuffed nylon boom floats, and an OttiMat human hair oil mat
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Matter of Trust's hair-stuffed nylon boom floats, and an OttiMat human hair oil mat
A prototype of EST's skimming system
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A prototype of EST's skimming system
Nalco's COREXIT being tested in a lab
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Nalco's COREXIT being tested in a lab

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 up

BP 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.

Thermablok's aerogel material
Thermablok's aerogel material

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.

Matter of Trust's hair-stuffed nylon boom floats, and an OttiMat human hair oil mat
Matter of Trust's hair-stuffed nylon boom floats, and an OttiMat human hair oil mat

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.

Enviro Voraxial Technology's Voraxial Separator
Enviro Voraxial Technology's Voraxial Separator

Solidify it

At 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.

Eat it

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 down

Dispersants 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.

Nalco's COREXIT being tested in a lab
Nalco's COREXIT being tested in a lab

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.

A prototype of EST's skimming system
A prototype of EST's skimming system

Peat moss via Inhabitat, EST via Daily Planet.

36 comments
Gavrilo Bozovic
Interesting... Just a short comment: when talking about Arch-Microbes, I\'m assuming they eat up the petroleum and produce carbon dioxide, and not oxygen? For a lifeform to use chemical energy, it must oxidize it, using O2, SO2, NO2, or one of many other oxygen compounds, and will then release a more oxidized version of its \"fuel\". The only lifeforms that release oxygen use solar energy to do so, and thus cannot live near deap ocean vents.
Colter Cederlof
There are certainly various options. I\'d really like to see them get that oil leak stopped first of all! Anyone else notice that a huge majority of the proposals to \'stop\' the leak instead involved the company collecting the oil in one way or another... It doesn\'t sound like they really want to stop the leak at all! They just want to funnel it and make some money... how can they ignore the environment so blatantly!
Talimon
According to Amira\'s website, it states that the Arch-Microbes do in fact create oxygen, as oppposed to Carbon Dioxide... I\'ll need to see allot more information provided by the creator of such a product though before I\'m a believer.
Stephen Mason
Two comments: 1. It is very highly UNlikely that the well is flowing at 100,000 bbls/day. This number represents a gross exageration put forth in the media and is from uninformed individuals making guesses by looking at the seafloor videos. This type of reporting borders on hysteria creation, and is shameful. 2. Re: Colter Cederlof\'s comment. To suggest that BP might not want to stop the flow of oil from this well is absurd, and reflects the general ignorance of the commentor. Uncontrolled flow into the water results in weathered crude that has virtually no value. In addition the cost to collect and dispose of this weathered crude is many, many times its value. This is just cowardly oil company bashing, you should be ashamed!
Bernardo Sibal
I agree with Colter Cederlof to stopped first the oil leak and the next step is to collect the oil spill. This is a very simple solution.
Tarry Faster
Let\'s plug it: Imagine a very large, steel/kevlar, closed umbrella. Insert it thoroughly into the pipe and then open it up. The more pressure that the oil/gas exerts, the stronger it would hold it back. In fact, I believe that the conical shape would evenly distribute the pressure and form a more powerful \"plug.\"
Oguzhan Yurdalan
Solution For The Oil Spill in The Gulf of Mexico A method/machine was designed for cleaning up liquid petrol and/or petroleum products, which are spilled over sea, using waste rubber powders; providing the recycling of this addend mass by squeezing; and moreover waste rubber powders used for cleanup process, are able to use again and again. Surface area/volume rate and the porosities of the waste rubber powders by decreasing grain size are increased. The absorbed petrol and/or petroleum products by the activated waste rubber powders are squeezed. While using this method/machine both liquid petrol and/or petroleum products are saved in the accumulation pool by squeezing the activated rubber particles and the particles which is complete its life span, could be used as a raw material in several industries. The number of the patent: TR 2008 04830 B Classification of the patent: E02B 15/04 Valid since: 2009/10/21 Arif Oguzhan Yurdalan Materials and Metallurgical Engineer Yurdalan Technik und Schaffung
Facebook User
Submitted my idea - as below: Hi all, A simple metal circular hinged clamp to be lowered over the pipe, (open) and a tank of air created to hold the clamp closed. (giant tongs) (maybe with hydraulic backup) Please see my simple sketch below. Simple, cheap, and effective in materials, labour, transportation. Easily duplicated, cost effective, have standby units.. to fit, off the shelf. BP please note: royalties would be appreciated for this poor engineer. seen at: http://www.jtmart.co.uk/Oilrepair.jpg Maybe not the best pic/idea in the world, but cheap and workable? jt.
Misterfact
Wouldn\'t this stop the leak? The design: Take a basketball and cut it in half. Lay the hemisphere on the ground witth the cut edge on the ground. Depress the top center so it is about 2\" from the ground. Now make this design out of solid steel, maybe 2 feet thick with a diameter of, say 50 feet. We\'re talking quite a few tons. Maybe nickel plate the entire unit to inhibit rust. At the bottom of the depression is a huge screw-eye with a big long chain attached. If the weight of the dome and mile long chain is too much for a ship and its hoist to handle, the dome could could be made of 1\" or 2\"\" steel with internal steel fortification and air and styrofoam inside- making the dome more boyant. Whatever the design- if they can make subs or send down cameras and construction equipment at that depth which can withstand the pressure, they can make a dome which will survive the depth also. After the dome is centered over the oil exit hole, the heavy chain can be lowered to fill the depression on the dome, giving it lots of weight, then the chain is cut. Then the dome can be covered with sand and rocks which would give the entire covering plug plenty of stability Mike Corman misterfact@yahoo.com
Iman Azol
@Colter: They\'re not making money from the cleanup. They may manage to use some small percentage of the leak, which is more positive than not doing so. Stopping the leak and cleaning the slick are two different tasks, with different sciences. You are unlikely to find one operation doing both.
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