Scientists are developing innovative technologies that could one day be used to clean up the sort of massive oil spill that sullied nine miles of picturesque California coastline Tuesday.
Over three hours, the broken 24-inch pipeline, owned by Plains All American Pipeline, spewed many gallons of crude oil (about 21,000, according to initial estimates, but authorities aren't relying on that figure) onto the Santa Barbara coastline — the slick stretched 50 yards into the ocean.
All spills are unique and require different responses based on their location, the weather conditions and the types of oil involved.
According to the University of Delaware Sea Grant Program, which promotes responsible use of marine and coastal resources, there are four main approaches to cleaning up an oil spill: (1) Leave it alone and let it disperse naturally, (2) use booms to contain the spill and collect it from the water’s surface with skimmer equipment, (3) use dispersants to break up the oil and expedite its biodegradation, or (4) use bacteria and other microorganisms to speed its biodegradation.
David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, laments that cleanup methods have not changed much in recent decades.
“The technology that you’re going to see applied in Santa Barbara is basically the same as they used in 1969 along those same stretches of beach when the offshore oil platforms blew out,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News. “The cleanup lasted for months, and many animals were killed.”
This time around, Pettit said, skimmers will be used to get oil off the water, but with the oil so close to shore, it might be difficult to get the boats into the appropriate position.
For the oil on land, he said, it is just grunt labor: people with shovels dumping oily sand in bags to be hauled away in trucks.
“If it gets in the rocks, they have to get in there by hand with cloths to get the oil off, which is a hopeless task,” Pettit said.
Despite the lack of progress in this area, or perhaps because of it, many scientists have been hard at work on a variety of technologies that might eventually accelerate the speed and efficiency of oil cleanups — mostly by separating the oil and water using nanoparticles.
Stainless steel mesh
In April, scientists at Ohio State University unveiled a piece of coated stainless steel mesh that allows water to pass through, but not oil.
The mesh's coating was partly inspired by lotus leaves, which have a bumpy surface that repels water.
“We developed a coating that can be put in mesh that can separate oil from water. So someone could take a huge net and put it in an area that is contaminated to collect the oil,” Ohio State engineering professor Bharat Bhushan said in an interview with Yahoo News.
In April 2012, researchers at Rice University and Penn State University said they had created a sponge — using pure carbon nanotubes and boron — that could absorb oil from the water’s surface.
After being retrieved, the oil could then be burned off of the sponge so that it could be reused, according to the researchers.
The robust sponge blocks, which are more than 99 percent air, repel water but attract oil.
Later that year, in August, researchers at the University of Michigan developed a similar “smart filter” technology that they think could clean up spills using gravity instead of chemical detergents.
The filter is a blend of a common polymer and a novel nanoparticle that attracts water but repels oil. Most natural substances soak up oil, and the few that repel it also repel water.
"This is one of the cheapest and most energy-efficient ways to separate oil and water mixtures," Anish Tuteja, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the university, said in a release in August 2012. "It has never been demonstrated before."
The following month, MIT scientists announced the creation of a similar technology that can separate oil and water magnetically.
The engineers said that water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles could be mixed into oil following a spill on the ocean’s surface. Then magnets would lift the oil from the water and finally separate the nanoparticles so that the oil could be salvaged for later use, according to the plan.
Cesar Harada, a TED senior fellow and inventor, was inspired to delve into oil-spill technology after the devastating BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He developed a flexible sailboat that is controlled remotely, rather than with a board and rudder.
The shape-shifting vessel, called Protei, can expand and contract and is capable of cleaning up large expanses of ocean quickly, according to Harada.
Rather than seeking a profit, Harada chose to open-source his invention, giving universal access to the design.
Time is of the essence
Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace who specializes in the challenges for oil-spill technology in the Arctic, said that oil-industry representatives like to talk about the cleanup technology they have, but time is not on their side; once the oil hits the water, it spreads quickly over a large area.
“Getting the technology in place in a timely manner is 95 percent of the battle,” he told Yahoo News.
Donaghy said that the oil industry has an awful track record of mistakes and accidents wreaking havoc on the environment that they have not been able to reduce.
“It’s unfortunately a fact of life in the oil industry. It’s a great reason for us to get off of this stuff and start using a cleaner technology,” he said.
Response to Tuesday’s spill
When contacted by Yahoo News, a Plains All American Pipeline representative declined to comment but shared the company’s statement on the spill.
“Plains deeply regrets this release has occurred and is making every effort to limit its environmental impact,” it reads. “Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of all involved.”
The company initiated its emergency response plan and is working with local officials and first responders to begin the cleanup process, according to the statement.
Greenpeace executive director Annie Leonard argues that oil spills are a direct result of inadequate oversight of fossil fuel companies — not accidents.
In a statement, she called upon U.S. politicians to take responsibility for the oil companies. She said that American leaders let these companies “run rampant in our country” and put “profits above human and environmental impacts.”
“Our thoughts are with the impacted Santa Barbara communities this morning, whose beautiful coastline has been devastated by this terrible oil spill,” she said.