LONDON Nov 2 With oil becoming scarcer and more
expensive, the economics of the industry may finally tip in
favour of one of the most neglected areas of its business - the
technology for cleaning up oil spills.
Despite efforts by scientists to find new and more effective
ways to deal with spilt oil, there has been little fundamental
change in the technology in the two decades since the 1989 Exxon
Valdez disaster that spilled 750,000 barrels of oil into Prince
William Sound in Alaska.
But as oil companies push into the environmentally pristine
Arctic and deeper waters elsewhere, the pressure on them to
demonstrate they can quickly mop up spilt oil will increase.
Big spills like BP PLC's 2010 disaster in the Gulf of
Mexico usually trigger a flurry of research, much like the
acceleration in weapons technology in wartime, but history shows
that industry and government enthusiasm quickly fades.
That loss of momentum could prove expensive. BP has already
spent $14 billion on clean-up operations, paid out over $8
billion in claims and is offering a further $7.8 billion in
settlement to those affected by the disaster.
ENTER THE SCIENTISTS
A pair of materials researchers from Pennsylvania State
University have come up with a novel gel that can absorb 40
times its own weight in oil and forms a soft solid that is
strong enough to be scooped up and fed straight into a refinery
to recover the oil.
The polymer developed by Mike Chung and Xuepei Yuan only
interacted with oil in tests and the swelled gel contained no
water, which solves the sticky problem of separating spilt crude
from the water it pollutes.
Chung says existing absorbers like straw, and even corn
cobs, can only hold about five times their own weight. They also
pick up water along with the oil and become waste that has to be
buried in special landfills or burned.
The Penn State scientists estimate their polymer gel could
be produced on a large scale for $2 a pound, which is enough to
recover more than five gallons of spilled oil worth roughly $12
based on a barrel price of $80.
"Had this material been applied to the top of the leaking
well head in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 spill, this...
could have effectively transformed the gushing brown oil into a
floating gel for easy collection and minimized the pollution
consequences," the scientists said in their research paper on
the new material.
Rival teams have applied nanotechnology to the problem to
produce ultra-lightweight sponges that are oleophilic and
hydrophobic - they love oil but repel water.
Daniel Hashim and colleagues at Rice University in Houston
have found a way to turn carbon nanotubes - atom-thick sheets of
carbon rolled into cylinders - into a sponge material that sucks
up oil and can either be squeezed or burned to remove it. In
either case the fire-resistant sponge can be re-used.
Hashim told Reuters he has some seed capital from companies
and individual investors to develop the technology but there are
plenty of hurdles ahead.
Aside from the need to develop a system to deploy the sponge
material into an oil spill, "the most significant barrier is
equipment cost associated with the scale-up process," he said.
If those hurdles can be overcome, the material could be
useful in the Arctic because it retains its sponginess even in
Even celebrities are getting in on the act. In June this
year, a U.S. jury ruled in favour of actor Kevin Costner in a
lawsuit in which fellow actor Stephen Baldwin accused him of
cheating in a multimillion dollar deal to sell oil clean-up
devices to BP after the Gulf of Mexico spill.
FLASH IN THE PAN
Some industry insiders are candid about the problem. Writing
in the Journal of Petroleum Technology in September, Michael
Cortez, BP's manager of oil spill response technology, and his
deputy Hunter Rowe warned the research push since the Gulf
disaster could be short-lived.
The industry has ramped up funding to improve response
technology after other major spills, they said.
"In all instances, however, after a few years of progress,
conditions changed in the industry because of oil price
volatility and other economic events, and spill response
technology development and funding returned to previous levels."
More than twenty years after Exxon Valdez, when BP's Macondo
well spewed out an estimated 5 million barrels into the sea, the
flotilla attacking the slick was still using floating booms to
contain it, specially adapted ships that pick it up by skimming
the surface of the water, and controversial chemical
There have been advances, not least in the gadgetry for
tracking and imaging spills and deploying the ships. The booms
are better designed, the skimmers are more efficient and the
dispersants less toxic. Some in the industry think this is
"We believe the current technology we have more than meets
the need," said Simon Henry, finance director of Royal Dutch
Shell, when asked by Reuters whether the company was increasing
research spending as it pushes exploration into the Arctic.
Shell, which is Europe's top oil company, was forced to
suspend the hunt for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska this year
after a giant metal box designed to help contain the oil in the
event of a well blowout, was damaged during
"We put most of our effort into ensuring there isn't a spill
in the first place," said Henry, adding that a series of
barriers, including the blowout preventer that sits on the sea
floor at the well-head, are there to guard against "a very, very
SENSE OF URGENCY
Cortez and Rowe from BP argue that exploration in harsher
and more remote environments calls for more cutting-edge spill
"The key to closing technology gaps and enhancing current
technologies is to prevent the sense of urgency from being
diminished," they said in their journal article.
Scientists are busy coming up with answers but in the end it
will be the will of the oil industry and pressure from
governments that determines how far and how fast these new
technologies are taken up.
As for the novel oil-absorbing gel, Mike Chung is still
waiting for the industry to call.
"There is a lot of interest in Petrogel technology for oil
spill cleanup and recovery, but not from major oil companies,"
he told Reuters.