SciTech

Slick technology facilitates devastating BP oil spill cleanup

The recent BP oil spill is the largest marine oil spill in history. Some of the technology being used in the oil spill cleanup includes underwater robots to measure oil plume size, dispersants to break up the oil, and skimming the ocean surface to remove oil from the water. (credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor) The recent BP oil spill is the largest marine oil spill in history. Some of the technology being used in the oil spill cleanup includes underwater robots to measure oil plume size, dispersants to break up the oil, and skimming the ocean surface to remove oil from the water. (credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor)

Cleaning up the largest marine oil spill in history is no easy task, and the public is still uncertain as to whether the ongoing cleanup has been successful. However, one thing is for certain: The cleanup would not have been feasible without the help of advances in oil spill technology.

Assessing the problem was a challenge, but researchers came up with an inventive way to measure the rate of oil gushing from the sea floor. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the most precise multibeam sonar was used to measure the size and shape of the oil plume, thereby establishing an upper bound on the leak rate of oil. Multibeam sonars are usually used in imaging the sea floor and studying hydrothermal vents. Hydrothermal vents are openings on the Earth’s surface from which heated water escapes, much like the way the oil was escaping; it only required a leap of ingenuity to realize it was the perfect tool for the job.

Other measurement techniques, according to an article from The Christian Science Monitor, included satellite imaging to measure the size of the oil slick on the surface and high-resolution video to determine the flow rate of the oil plume. In a laboratory, high-resolution video measures the speed of individual particles by tracking the distance the particles travel between successive frames of film, but this was impossible for the oil plume because of its opacity. Scientists found a solution to this problem by measuring the distance traveled by oil plume billows, rather than individual particles. Measuring may be important, but cleaning up is the only way to remove the spill from the environment. The easiest but most time-consuming method would be to let Mother Nature take care of the spill. Water currents and storms act to disperse the oil, causing the amount of oil in water to reach a low enough level for nature to biodegrade it from the water. To speed up this process, chemical dispersants have been used. While dispersants are toxic to the environment, they are less toxic than the oil; however, some scientists are still concerned about their environmental impact. Some fear they may affect the environment and wildlife just as badly as the oil itself.

According to www.cnn.com, dispersants work by bonding to oil molecules, preventing the oil from binding together. Aircrafts can be used to spread the dispersant on the oil slick. Researchers have also considered spreading dispersants underwater so the oil will break up before it reaches the surface, but they are unsure of the effectiveness of this approach as it has never been done before.

Skimming the oil from the surface of the water will help reduce the size of the oil spill, but skimmers are time-consuming, cannot travel very fast, and are unable to perform in rough weather conditions where wave sizes exceed 1.5 meters, according to an article from www.popularmechanics.com. This is an issue because skimming is the only way to directly remove the oil from the environment.

Another method of oil cleaning is known as in situ burning. In low concentrations, oil cannot burn when it is mixed with water. However, ships can gather oil into a concentrated location until it becomes thick enough to be able to burn while still in the water. Once the oil burns, it becomes a substance resembling tar that can be removed from the water. However, a test burn in a small area revealed that ocean winds and currents would not allow effective in situ burning.

Because of the difficulty of the task at hand and current technological restrictions, researchers are developing newer technologies that will make oil cleanups easier in the future. These include faster skimmers that can work in rough weather conditions and the development of a new substance known as aerogel that will be able to soak up oil. Aerogel is the least dense man-made solid created and already has many uses as an insulator, but it is being developed to soak up oil like a sponge while also repelling water. The oil can then be removed from the aerogel and recycled, and the aerogel can be reused for more cleanup.

The recent BP oil spill has shown that, even with our best efforts, the power of nature can be uncontrollable. However, necessity is the mother of invention; it has also spurred a creativity in technological achievement that will help us clean our oceans, as well as maintain and protect the environment from future disasters.