NRC research explores new oil spill containment boom technologies that could improve cleanup capabilities in oceans, lakes and rivers.
Images of oil-covered seabirds, otters and turtles have made headlines around the world, illustrating the severe environmental damage caused by massive crude oil spills clogging waters and shorelines. Cleanup tends to fall to coastal patrols and authorities, whose efforts are compounded by winds, currents and waves that cause the spills to spread, fragment and disperse.
The process for dealing with these toxic spills is slow and expensive. It requires physical barriers (containment booms) to contain and concentrate floating oil, mechanical devices (skimmers) to remove oil from the water's surface, and temporary storage devices to stow the recovered oil and water until they can be discarded safely. For example, history's largest oil spill (Deepwater Horizon, Gulf of Mexico) cost the owner, BP, more than $65 billion in cleanup, fines and penalties. While this accident occurred in 2010, some Gulf Coast ecosystems may never fully recover.
According to Steve Potter, Managing Director of Ottawa-based SL Ross Environmental Research, booms in use today can trap oil only in water that is moving slowly—about 1 knot (less than 2 kilometres per hour). "To improve emergency response in such situations, we need new technology that works well at higher speeds and in all kinds of weather," he says.
An opportunity to develop that technology came from the Bureau of Safety Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), a U.S. government agency dedicated to improving oil spill detection, containment, treatment and cleanup. After identifying a need to create and evaluate boom designs to speed up the process, BSEE's Research Program Manager, Kristi McKinney, issued a request for proposal (RFP) to industry leaders.
"As soon as we saw the RFP we realized the project would be beyond our in-house capabilities," says Potter. "But we had used the National Research Council's (NRC) facilities before, so we knew they would be the perfect partner." With SL Ross's in-depth knowledge of oil spill countermeasures combined with the NRC's test facilities, engineering and hydrodynamic modelling expertise, their joint proposal won the bid. And having 3 organizations bringing unique expertise to the project led to smooth sailing.
Collaborative research leads to better boom designs
The NRC and SL Ross launched the research with an extensive literature review of existing knowledge in oil spill boom science and technology, particularly concerning high-speed conditions. The NRC then conducted a comprehensive series of 2- and 3-dimensional computer simulations and physical modelling experiments. These investigated the performance of several different innovative boom designs at high speeds with varying quantities of light, medium and heavy oil.
"Our numerical simulations had never been applied to this kind of problem before, so we didn't know if they would work," says the NRC's Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering principal researcher, Andrew Cornett. "We also weren't sure how effective scale models would be since they, too, had never been used in this context."
Fortunately, the NRC, with feedback from BSEE and SL Ross, developed the right capabilities. By pushing the envelope of their numerical simulations, they were able to produce realistic and useful results quickly and cost effectively. They also built and tested 1/8-scale models of 3 different types of booms in the NRC's Ottawa research facilities, producing reliable results for comparative performance analysis. "Using computer simulations and scale modelling ensures a much faster and more cost-effective approach to assessing new concepts than full-scale testing in outdoor conditions," says Cornett.
The laboratory and computational modelling revealed the potential for several promising boom concepts that could collect oil at speeds 3 times faster than existing technology. These new ideas must also be feasible and practical: since booms are deployed from boats, they need to roll up into a compact form for storage on the deck. During an emergency, they must be brought out quickly either by sailors on small tugboats or by machines on large ships.
Changing tack and moving ahead
"Although the identified technologies are not necessarily ready for commercialization, we are interested in conducting additional research to further assess the viability of these boom enhancements," says McKinney. "Further research would also ensure that we fully understand how to use scale-model test results to predict the performance of full-scale products."
The next step is to build a prototype and test it in real-world conditions. Once validated through full-scale testing and field trials, the innovation will help boost oil spill response capabilities and reduce the harmful consequences of future spills in lakes, rivers and oceans.
"The NRC is pleased to be working creatively with high-calibre partners to solve such a significant environmental problem," says Cornett. "And this transformative solution can have a worldwide impact."