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Alaska Beat

Oil spill cleanup innovations include 'sponge' that may work in Arctic

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published November 6, 2012

An article by the news outlet Reuters on Thursday makes interesting observations about why the oil industry may be slow to adopt revolutionary clean-up practices, despite intriguing new inventions coming out of researchers' laboratories.

Two new technologies highlighted by Reuters involve ways to mop up spilled oil. One is a super-absorbent gel that can hold up to fifty times its own weight in oil, and becomes solid enough to be plucked from the water and sent directly to a refinery to recover the oil it captures. The other is an ultra-light, carbon-based sponge, which holds promise for the Arctic since it retains its "sponginess" in extreme cold.

With BP having to spend more than $30 billion thus far in damage control due to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and rig disaster, including clean-up costs, paid claims and anticipated legal settlements, it would seem prudent that oil giants jump on anything that minimizes environmental impact and salvages value from spilled product.

Yet a BP executive himself has admitted recently that change, especially sustained change, is challenging to embrace. Michael Cortez, a manager of oil spill response technology for BP, recently published an article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, according to Reuters. In it, Cortez discusses how motivation, money and political pressure tend to wane within a few years of a research-triggering event, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, or BP's blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Until pressure for new, breakthrough technologies remains high all the time, instead of just in response to crisis, transformative shifts in how oil spills are dealt with may be hard to come by, he and a colleague reasoned.

For now, the oil industry has largely relied on the same technology it had in the 1980s, though with some improvements: Floating boom to contain water-borne oil, ships capable of skimming oil from the surface of water, and dispersants to help minimize the impact.

As for interest in those intriguing new super-sponges? Neither set of researchers says the oil companies have come calling.

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