Oil spill cleanup technology picks up $1.7 million in funding

Ingenuity Lab director Carlo Montemagno holds a carbon nanotube mesh the lab is developing to soak up and reuse oil spilled in water; Image: Richard Siemens/University of Alberta

Ingenuity Lab, a University of Alberta-based nanotechnology accelerator, has received $1.7 million in project funding for the research and development of an effective alternative for recovering heavy oil spilled in marine environments.

Ingenuity has developed a piece of technology to aid in the cleanup of oil spills made of a carbon nanotube mesh, supplemented with minerals and polymers that cause it to act as a sponge, drawing in and retaining oil.

More precisely, the tech consists of nanowire-based multifunctional stimuli-responsive membranes and devices capable of recovering oil from spills.

BP’s Clair oil platform that leaked 95 tonnes of oil into the North Sea last year served as a reminder that accidents can and will happen when it comes to crude oil extraction, the company said.

Currently, spills are treated by recourse to booms and skimmers. Booms are buoyant barriers that contain some of the spill, while skimmers are boats that can suck up oil from the surface. The method is fuel-intensive and does not take care of oil under the water’s surface.

However, the Lab said that this new technology was quite different from existing cleanup methods due to its ability to reduce waste and clean both on and beneath the surface of a body of water.

Also, once saturated with oil, the sponge structure can be exposed to heat, electricity or ultraviolet light, causing it to release what it has collected. The recovered oil can then be reused, minimizing both waste and environmental damage. The long-term plan is for the technology to be implemented as a standard tool on seagoing vessels.

Carlo Montemagno, Director at Ingenuity Lab, said: “If you want to clean up a spill as fast as possible, you have to get the heavier oil at the bottom as well.”

Ingenuity added that the device was successful in small-scale trials and that the funding from Natural Resources Canada would help develop a large-scale version to challenge the ‘status quo’ for crude oil cleanup operations. With the help of the $1.7 million in funds, real-world field testing is expected to begin within the next two years.

Montemagno added: “It will do a better job [than existing methods] and make a sure impact on the environment is minimized.”

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