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By Kate Cranney 21 April 2022 3 min read

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. Image: Kris Krug via Flickr.

It's likely you've seen photos of seabirds covered in thick oil, struggling to lift their wings.

Oil spills can cause significant environmental damage, especially to marine wildlife.

They can occur in oceans, rivers, bays, and other water bodies. Often, spills are caused by an accident involving a tanker, barge, pipeline, refinery, drilling rig, storage facility or recreational boat.

When oil spills do happen, we need to be able to clean up the incident rapidly and effectively.

What happens after an oil spill?

The first phase of an oil spill clean-up is called the ‘skimming operation’. That’s when the bulk of the oil is removed by skimming the oil layer off the water’s surface using oil booms or other equipment.

A rescue boat checks oil booms of the fishing vessel Libas. Oil industry tests new oil spill response equipment under real conditions in the North Sea. Image: NOFO Norsk Oljevernforening For Operatørselskap

But even after an oil spill is cleaned up, oil remains mixed into the sea water as small droplets. Even at these low oil concentrations, the water is still environmentally unsafe.

So, the second phase of the clean-up process aims to remove this low concentration oily water.

Typically, it’s skimmed off the top of the water with a pump. But this results in large amounts of oil/water mixtures being stored on response vessels. At this stage, the seawater stored on the vessel contains many small droplets of oil. The water needs to be transported back to shore and then removed the remaining oil before being disposed of directly into the sea. This is costly and wastes crucial operational time.

There is a need for new approaches to the second phase of oil spill clean-up . We need technology capable of quickly separating and removing crude oil from the seawater, especially when oil is present at very low concentrations.

Our new oil spill response technology

CSIRO scientists have developed new oil spill response technology that focuses on removing small oil droplets. The project is led by Dr Colin Wood and funded by the Government of Canada.

“First, we take a typical domestic sponge,” Colin explained.

“We coat the sponge with a special polystyrene-based polymer. This polymer layer is 'superhydrophobic' – it’s extremely repellent of water.”

But it’s very efficient at separating oil from water emulsions. The oil soaks into the sponge and the water wicks away.The sponge material is cheap and scalable. After it’s been mechanically compressed, the sponge can also be easily recycled and reused.

“Best of all, our technology can be used when the oil is at extremely low – but still environmentally harmful – concentration in the water,” Colin said.

The hydrophobic sponges can separate oil from water even with extremely low concentrations: lower than 1000 ppm.

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Large scale trials on the horizon

With our new sponge technology, responders can clean oil spills at sea. This is a cheaper, faster way to treat oil spills, ultimately helping reduce the impact on our marine life.

Colin's team is now scaling the synthesis of the materials and carrying out larger scale trials. The ultimate goal is large scale deployment of the system.

“We are looking forward to testing our technology on larger scale applications and possibly applying the material to actual water treatment," he said.

"We believe that the technology could have a major impact on the efficiency and sustainability of oil spill response operations.”

Colin's work builds on CSIRO's previous work on oil spills. Our global expertise and technology has been used during and after the Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Exxon Valdez incidents, and during the MV Tycoon break up near Christmas Island. We have also created a handbook on monitoring oil spills, providing shipping companies with guidance on responding to oil spills and assessing any environmental damage.

The process behind CSIRO's new oil spill response technology. From coating a domestic sponge with 'superhydrogphobic' polymer, to using to separate oil, and then mechanically compressing the sponge to get rid of the oil and use it again.

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