6 New Ways to Clean Up America's Next Catastrophic Oil Spill

Two years after the BP mess, drilling ramps up, and we need to prepare.

A cleanup crew in Mississippi surveys the oily situation after the Deepwater Horizon spill. (Photo: Lee Celano/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

On the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spilling of five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it goes without typing that as long as we continue to drill for oil—and given the boom in the industry post-spill, it’s clear that we will—there will be accidents.

...as long as we continue to drill for oil—and given the boom in the industry post-spill, it’s clear that we will—there will be accidents.

I’d like to think that one thing scientists have been working on in the two years since—perhaps well-funded by BP and other oil companies fearful of the kind of bad press that oil spills inevitably attract—is how to clean up such messes. That would be a major improvement, since it was widely reported in 2010 that little research had been done on the subject in the 20 years that followed the Exxon Valdez running aground in 1989.

Here are six innovative solutions that will hopefully help stymie the next spill, with thanks for the inspiration to Katherine Butler at Mother Earth News:

1) A CARBON SPONGE — According to researchers at Rice University, one spill solution may be a sponge made from pure carbon nanotubes, with a dash of boron added, which can absorb up to 100 times its weight in oil. Apparently, it’s proven particularly adept at sucking oil off the surface of the water. Once absorbed, the oil can either be stored for later retrieval or burned off, allowing the sponge to be reused. Both hydrophobic and oleophillic—meaning that it “hates the water…and loves the oil”—the carbon sponge works equally well on saltwater as fresh.

2) EXTREME SPILL TECHNOLOGY — One deterrent to cleaning up the Gulf spill was the very wildness of the ocean; rough seas made it impossible for standard booms and skimmers to operate efficiently, if at all. Leave it to Halifax, Nova Scotia-based Extreme Spill Technology to come up with boats that can do the job in waves higher than 10 feet. Trials in Canada, Norway, and China have proven the technology to be both efficient and less expensive than other current boat-rigged options. Given Shell’s—and other oil companies—hopes to soon be drilling in the Arctic, it’s good that the EST technology is said to work equally well in heavy ice and extreme cold.

3) METALLIC SOAP — Researchers at the University of Bristol may have come up with a first in “soap research”: a metallic version, iron-rich and salty, which uses a unique blend of gravity and surface tension so it can be vacuumed off the surface after it’s helped “clean” an oily patch. Testing was done by squirting the soap into solvent-thick water, holding a magnet nearby, and watching the soap levitate to it. To date it’s worked in a lab; testing on a body of water bigger than a sink is in the works.

4) A NEWFANGLED SKIMMER — While extracting fossil fuels from the earth to burn for energy has technological roots that go back to earliest man, what separates us from that version of humanoid is alleged to be the innovative ways we clean up our messes. In 2010 Wendy Schmidt—president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which was started by her husband, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt—launched a contest to reward the most innovative way to clean up an oil spill. The winner of the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge was Elastec/American Marine, which beat out nine competitors challenged with finding the most efficient way to skim an inch of oil off a surface area bigger than a football field. The company came up with a new kind of skimmer than can do the job, processing as much as 2,500 gallons per minute.

5) A SEPARATOR THAT CONSERVES — James Cameron wasn’t the only Hollywood pro who tried to stop the Deepwater Horizon gusher from gushing. Kevin Costner attempted to ride to the rescue as well, with one eye focused on conservation efforts, the other on profiting from the mess. His “Ocean Therapy”—a centrifuge-like device that sits on a barge, sucks in dirty water, separates the oil, and deposits the clean water back into the ocean—was tried in the Gulf. BP bought 32 of them for $16 million (Costner is said to have put $26 million of his own money into the technology, partnered with his scientist brother). Though deployed in the end, they weren’t able to process the thick, heavy oil and return clean water back into the ocean.

6) PEAT MOSS — Rather than use 1.8 million gallons of mysterious chemical dispersants to try to get rid of the oil (as was done in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup), there may be a more natural sop in peat moss. A Norwegian company, Kallak Torvstrofabrikk, has come up with an absorbent peat moss that can be tossed directly into the oil-soaked water. Apparently, it has been tested and worked during a 2009 spill off the coast of Norway. My question: As the peat moss is supposed to absorb the oil and encapsulate it, won’t a big percentage of the soaked peat sink to the ocean floor? The company insists it is “easily removed.” I guess we’ll only know just how float-worthy it is the next time there’s a sizable leak somewhere on the planet. And chances are, there will be. 

Two years after America's worst environmental disaster, what is your lasting memory of the B.P. spill?

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