Novel Norwegian technologies help in Gulf of Mexico

Paul Boughton
With the world's focus on events in the Gulf of Mexico, a trio of Norwegian innovations are helping in the clean-up campaign. Sean Ottewell reports.

Sintef is the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia and each year helps over 2000 companies in the region with their R&D activities. Now its oil-spill researchers are helping the US authorities to estimate what happens to the oil that is leaking out into the Gulf of Mexico.

"The results of our calculations are helping the authorities to select measures tolimit the overall environmental damage caused by the spill," says research manager Mark Reed of Sintef Materials and Chemistry.

The US authorities have decided to employ dispersants on the oil-slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. These soap-like chemicals break the oil down into tiny droplets that then become mixed into the water column, before the oil reaches the shore. Most of the soap-like chemicals are released from aircraft flying over the oil-slicks on the surface.

However, the blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico is the first in which the clean-up teams are also injecting dispersant directly into the flow of oil and gas leaking out at the seabed. This is why Sintef was contacted.

"The US environmental authorities are demanding evidence that spraying at the seabed is not producing undesirably high concentrations of oil in the water column, as far as fish and other marine organisms are concerned. Our calculations show that the concentrations in the water column will not be significantly higher than they would have been without injection of dispersant at the wellhead," says Reed.

"What we see, in fact, is that the oil in the water column becomes highly diluted, because the volumes and depths involved are so great in this part of the ocean. The concentration of oil in the water column will be only slightly higher than it would have been in any case as a result of nature's own ability to break the oil-slicks down into droplets. Since the difference is so small, we do not believe that the use of dispersants in the water column in the Gulf has made matters worse for fish and other marine organisms," he added.

According to the Sintef scientist, it is more likely instead that the injection ofdispersants at seabed level in this case has actually reduced the overall environmental impact of the spill.

"Our calculations show that the dispersants added at seabed level have prevented large amounts of oil from reaching the shore in the form of oil-slicks, with all that these would mean for birds, for example. The picture that we have arrived at via our calculations also matches observations of what has happened so far on the shores of the United States," says Reed.

However, Reed adds that the effects that such large quantities of dispersants deployed from aircraft could have on the concentration of oil in the water column is not currently being investigated.

"That question lies outside our remit, so we have not simulated their effects. The dispersants have probably increased the concentration of oil in the upper layers of the water column. Whether it will remain high will depend on the weather conditions. Strong winds will tend to dilute the concentration in the upper layers."

Sintef was awarded its Gulf of Mexico contract by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is an arm of the US Department of Commerce.

Meanwhile other Norwegian researchers are currently working on oil clean-up technologies which could have a major role to play in any future Deepwater Horizon-type incidents.

NorLense, for example, has made innovative strides in oil boom technology.Funded partly by the PETROMAKS program at the Research Council of Norway, Oslo, the objective of NorLense has been to develop a versatile new system for oil spill contingency that can perform in coastal areas and farther out to sea - as well as in rough weather and difficult currents.

The company's system consists of multiple components: a boom designed to function in concert with a separator, and a skimmer for coping with oil partially submerged by breaking waves.

The concept's most important innovations are a separator integrated into the boom and the method by which discharged oil is collected and pumped, together with water, into tanks on board a collection vessel, which may well be an ordinary fishing vessel (Fig. 1). For use in coastal marine areas and on shorelines, lighter equipment that can be combined with various absorption agents is being developed. This equipment will improve preparedness to launch response operations quickly at contaminated coastal sites and tailor measures to local conditions.

"Quicker and more effective management of oil spills is given high priority under the PETROMAKS program," explains senior adviser Tarjei N Malme of the Research Council of Norway. "As the Norwegian petroleum industry expands its activities to new geographic areas with potentially different weather conditions and new operating conditions, we must ensure that we keep pace by developing technology and building competence to prevent and contain acute oil spills."

Meanwhile, Kallak Torvstrofabrikk has developed a peat moss mixture with unusually good absorbent qualities. The three-man company traditionally sold treated peat moss as a component of soil for flowering plants and as growth medium. But realising that the peat moss is a remarkably good absorbent, three years ago they began to seek out other potential uses for it. Since then Kallak Torvstrofabrikk has been working with scientists from Sintef's marine environmental technology department with the aim of testing different types of peat moss and documenting their properties.

The conclusions drawn from these testing programs were quite clear: the peat moss has excellent potential, as its ability to take up oil is as good as, or in some cases even better than, other products already available on the market.

Then last summer, the Panama-registered Full City tanker ran aground off Langesund on the south-east coast of Norway, causing severe oil contamination along much of the coast. The incident gave Kallak Torvstrofabrikk the chance to demonstrate the efficacy of its new product on land.

According to Svein Ramstad of Sintef's marine environment department, the peat moss was deployed on a geological conservation area near Langesund and at Stavern. The area was heavily contaminated, and care needed to be taken. Gravel and stones were mixed with the peat moss and then laid back in their original position.

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