Oil Spill Response Breaks New Ground

The oil is in the water. Sensitive marine environments are under threat. Time, wind, and waves are working against you. The key to effective mitigation is quick action. And a multi-year program by BC Research to develop immediate-response solutions to oil spills in marine environments has now added some novel chemistry to the mix.

Key to the new technology are formulations known as ‘herders’ and ‘gellants’. The herder is applied first to rapidly contract an oil slick, reduce its surface area, and increase the thickness of the oil layer. This is followed by the addition of the gellant, which converts the oil to a semi-solid mass. When used in tandem, the end-result is a stable slick that does not spread, is less susceptible to weathering, and – most importantly – remains afloat. The gelled oil can then be removed using current oil recovery protocols.

In the projected wake of additional pipeline and oil-tanker traffic, environmental concerns around British Colombia’s pristine coastline have propelled development of advanced oil-spill response technologies. New findings in a BC Research-led program, initiated in 2015, set the pace and quickly attracted funding from Canada’s Office of Energy Research and Development – NRCan. The program identified a collection of novel oil-spill treating agents, that offer significant advantages over the current strategy of employing absorbent materials, and that have proven effective against a diverse range of oil products including diesel, conventional crude and dilbit.

The experimental herders and gellants were developed and evaluated at BC Research, both in the laboratory, and on the pilot scale using a custom-designed wave simulation tank. In contrast to conventional sorbents, which represent the current benchmark, the gellants can be prepared from bio-based feedstocks, are biodegradable, and are effective at dosing levels as low as 2 % by volume. Sorbents, on the other hand, are typically derived from petroleum-based materials, have long-term environmental persistence, and must be applied in volume ratios of 20-40 %. And while current techniques typically only succeed in recovering 10-20% of the oil, much higher recovery rates appear to be within reach.

The next phase of the BC Research program will engage a wider group of stakeholders, and propel the spill-treating agents towards commercialization. Activities over the next twelve months include the production and advanced testing of the new formulations on a larger scale.