SHORT CIRCUIT | How to Soak Up an Oil Spill

April 20, 2017

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SHORT CIRCUIT | How to Soak Up an Oil Spill (Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast)
U.S. Department of Energy

On April 20, 2010, an explosion rocked BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig 42 miles off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 people and setting off a gusher of oil deep below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The damaged well leaked more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over 87 days, reaching as far as the shores of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

What Happened to the Oil?

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Check out this awesome interactive on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal that breaks down how the Deepwater Horizon spill unfolded, where the oil went, and what impacts it had on Gulf ecosystems.

Oleo Sponge to the Rescue

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The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has come up with a clever solution that could help reduce the environmental damage of future spills. Seth Darling and his colleagues at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials developed the Oleo Sponge, a game-changing piece of technology with the power to soak up oil -- but not water.

Watch a great video of the oil sponge in action and see more photos from the team’s intense testing at a massive seawater tank in New Jersey.

Oil Spills Are What He Does

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Chris Reddy, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was kind enough to talk to us about his firsthand experiences responding to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and many more spills. Learn more about his research here.

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Transcript: 

Direct Current Season 2 TRANSCRIPT
SHORT CIRCUIT | How to Soak Up an Oil Spill

(INTRO THEME)

(SOUND OF LAPPING WAVES, THEN EXPLOSIONS, FOLLOWED BY SOMBER VIOLIN MUSIC)

(CLIPS FROM NEWS BROADCASTS)

Female Newscaster #1: An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Male Newscaster #1: A well drilled by the BP Oil Company blew out.

Female Newscaster #2: That killed 11 workers.

Male Newscaster #2: That oil rig has now sunk.

Female Newscaster #3: And cleanup crews spent the day trying to keep the 12-mile-long oil slick from the rig from reaching shore.

Male Newscaster #3: Unleashing a gusher into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days.

Male Newscaster #4: We look down at thick brown streaks of crude on a sea that is normally deep green.

Female Newscaster #4: One of the most devastating environmental disasters ever to hit U.S. shores.

CHRIS REDDY: It was apocalyptic, I mean, I was at ground zero. It was so loud because they were burning some of the oil that it was deafening. It’s hard to explain. You'll just never forget it.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

Matt Dozier: April 20th, 2017, marks seven years since the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the worst oil spill in U.S. history. That voice you just heard is Chris Reddy, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

REDDY: I've been studying oil spills my whole life. You know, I did my Ph.D. on diesel fuel spill that happened in 1996...

DOZIER: (SPEAKING OVER REDDY) As you can tell, Chris is something of an oil spill expert, which is how he ended up on a boat near the epicenter of the spill just days after the explosion. The Deepwater Horizon well would eventually leak more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was capped, reaching as far as the shores of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

REDDY: ...oil spill in 2015 in the Yellowstone River. You name it. If there’s a spill, I’m usually there. Oil spills are what I do.

DOZIER: Chris had studied many, many oil spills during his career, but there were things about the Deepwater Horizon that made it unlike any he had encountered before.

REDDY: Every one of them’s different. Nature is a very interesting chemist, and the Earth is a very unusual beaker. Collectively, you have very unusual circumstances when spills occur, and so sometimes they’re hard to predict.

DOZIER: In this case, instead of leaking from a tanker ship or a pipeline, the oil was bubbling up from the seafloor nearly a mile down, and not all of it made it to the surface. That created all sorts of problems for responders trying to stop the leak and prevent the oil from reaching sensitive ecosystems along the Gulf Coast.

(SOFT CHIMES AND STRINGS MUSIC)

DOZIER: Long story short, it was a mess. So, how do you go about dealing with a spill of this magnitude? Chris compared the three main phases of an oil spill to a house fire. There’s the first phase...

REDDY: When somebody's house catches on fire, unfortunately, they have to go put out the fire. The firefighters are what we call the response. Their job is to stop a bad thing from getting worse.

DOZIER: The second phase...

REDDY: ...to assess damages, which is kind of like the insurance adjuster, who will come out and try to figure out how much damage happened to this neighborhood or that house.

DOZIER:  …and the third phase.

REDDY: The restoration, which is, do you knock the house down? Do you renovate it? Yadda yadda yadda.

DOZIER: Problem is, for the “firefighters” in this situation -- that is, the spill responders -- the tools they have at their disposal aren’t all that great, even when the oil they are trying to clean is floating on the surface. Which, of course, not all of it was.

DOZIER: Skimmers can scoop a slick of oil off the top of the water -- but only if the water is calm. Corralling the oil with floating booms then burning it is another method, but obviously not great for the environment. Single-use “sorbents” made of things like foam or hay or sawdust tend to soak up a lot of water with the oil, and you end up with a bunch of toxic garbage that needs to be disposed of. Chemical dispersants are the other option, but they just break up the oil and move it down into the water column.

(MELLOW GUITAR AND ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

DOZIER: But what if there was a solution that didn’t have any of those issues? Something flexible and easy to deploy on the surface or underwater… something that worked fast, and could be endlessly reused -- no burning or chemicals required?

DOZIER: You can probably guess where this is going.

Seth Darling: My name is Seth Darling, I'm a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in the Center for Nanoscale Materials, and a co-inventor of the Oleo Sponge.

DOZIER: About seven years ago -- actually, right around the time of the Deepwater Horizon spill -- Seth and his colleagues at Argonne came up with this technique for making materials called “sequential infiltration ,synthesis” or S-I-S. It’s kind of like super glue for holding stuff together at the molecular level.

DOZIER: At first, they were just messing around with SIS, refining the process -- you know, as scientists do. Over time, they discovered that they could use it to apply an oil-loving substance to a sponge, so it would adsorb oil but not water. Note that I said “adsorb” and not “absorb” -- I’m told it’s a very important scientific distinction. Anyway, in 2015, with the help of a grant from the U.S. Coast Guard, they put their creation to the test as a tool to combat oil spills and gave it a name: the Oleo Sponge.

DARLING: So, the starting material for this Oleo Sponge is really just foam like you'd be sitting on in a chair, polyurethane foam. It's manufactured on a massive scale internationally, it's in furniture, it's in insulation, it's all over the place.

DOZIER: This type of foam has lots of nooks and crannies, which is great for soaking up liquids. But it isn’t very effective at grabbing oil. Or it wasn’t, until Seth’s team used their two-step SIS process to coat it with a metal oxide, which then bonds to a material that really, really likes oil. The end result was a sponge that was both water-repellent and adsorbed oil with incredible speed.

DARLING: You take this Oleo Sponge, and you put it down on that oil slick, and it is just visibly remarkable. You know, a second or less. It has just soaked it right up.

DOZIER: Their testing started small -- just little one-inch pieces of sponge in a petri dish with a bit of motor oil.

DARLING: In that phase one we're doing with the little cubes, we can soak up oil, squeeze it out, soak up more, squeeze it out, over and over and over again until literally you just get bored or tired. (LAUGHS) So, you know, many many dozens of times, and we don't really know what the limit is on that. It just keeps working.

DOZIER: Not only was the sponge reusable, but the oil it soaked up could be collected and reused, as well. Plus, Seth’s team found that it worked almost as well with oil mixed into the water column as it did with surface oil. So, once they’d proved that the concept worked, it was time to take their testing to the next level.

DARLING: To do phase two, we scaled up 10,000 times to create basically an eight-foot-by-eight-foot wall of this Oleo Sponge. We actually had to go to a facility out in New Jersey to do this demonstration test in a huge tank of seawater.

DOZIER: But before they even started testing, Seth said they ran into an unexpected hurdle.

DARLING: It's really hard to get your hands on crude oil. I presumed, you know, it being one of these widely traded commodities that you hear about all the time, that you can just buy some. And it turns out it's not so easy. I think you can buy, you know, a million gallons, but to buy *a gallon* -- not so easy, and we had to work for quite some time before we could find a place we could get our hands on some to do some testing.

DOZIER: They eventually managed to get access to crude oil samples through their Coast Guard connections. And during the course of their testing, the Oleo Sponge stood up to the punishing conditions time and time again.

DARLING: It was outdoors in New Jersey in December, so this is not a friendly environment. It's cold, it's submerged in seawater, it's being exposed to crude oil, which is pretty nasty stuff, and diesel fuel and other things. And then when you pull it out it gets put literally through the wringer to compress out the fluids you've adsorbed. And then, again, back through that cycle, over and over and over again. We did that for a whole week of outdoor testing at this facility, and we saw no decrease in performance throughout that week. We even brought those foam panels back here to Argonne and tried them out again here, and they worked just as well as they did at the beginning. There probably is some limit on reusability, but we have yet to find it.

(LIGHT PIANO AND VIOLIN MUSIC WITH SYNTHESIZER)

DOZIER:  So the Oleo Sponge is effective, reusable, and -- maybe most importantly -- easy to use. Chris said the response to Deepwater Horizon and other oil spills really hinges on one key factor: speed. The quicker you can get equipment and people to the scene, the less damage a spill can do.

REDDY: Oil spills are all about logistics and location. If a firefighter can show up and put out somebody's garage before the house catches on fire, then it's a victory. Perhaps the biggest game-changing aspect of the Deepwater Horizon is that people are beginning to appreciate that response-side science. That's where countermeasure tools like an effective sorbent or sponge like your Argonne folks are developing is critical.

DOZIER: So far, the team at Argonne has received nearly 200 inquiries about the Oleo Sponge from people all over the world.

DARLING: We've been lucky with this technology. Usually, when a National Laboratory like Argonne comes up with something they think might be technologically useful, you've gotta kinda go out there and hunt down the people in the industry who might be interested, and present it to them and try to spark their interest. This one was a little bit of the reverse, because we were fortunate to have this kind of viral media attention that this thing drew, people have been coming to Argonne expressing interest, and the hope is that one or more of those will turn into some type of a partnership, which can really move the technology from the laboratory out into the real world.

DOZIER: Someday soon, the Oleo Sponge could be stored in places where oil spills are likely to happen, like oil rigs or tanker ships, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Seth said the sponge has also proven effective in cleaning up diesel fuel, which could make it a useful tool for cleaning up the small spills that frequently pollute ports and harbors.

DARLING: Being able to develop a technology that can actually make a difference in addressing those types of catastrophes is just awesome.

(UPBEAT ACOUSTIC GUITAR AND PERCUSSION MUSIC)

DOZIER: All of this, from the spark of an idea to the finished product, happened in just two years. And while this is a story about an oil sponge, it's also about innovation. It’s an example of the unexpected discoveries that happen when our National Labs devote their considerable brainpower to tackling burning questions -- sometimes, questions that haven’t even been asked yet.

DARLING: It’s one of those things that you can't do intentionally, really. And it, I think, speaks to the value of basic science research. There are countless examples through human history where just exploratory discovery-type scientific work led to something no one would have envisioned at the beginning that turns out to be useful, or in some cases, even world-changing.

(MUSIC FADES OUT)

(AMBIENT ELECTRONIC MUSIC)

ALLISON LANTERO: That does it for this Short Circuit! If you want to see the Oleo Sponge in action, we’ll have links to pictures and video on our website. We’ll be back soon with more episodes in Season 2 of Direct Current.

DOZIER: Huge thanks to Seth Darling and the team at Argonne National Lab, and to Chris Reddy for talking to us about the Deepwater Horizon spill.

LANTERO: Paul Lester, who brought us this story, not only has an eye for a great podcast episode but is an all-around great human being.

PAUL LESTER: Hey-ooo.

DOZIER: (WHISPERING) Hope you had an awesome time at Star Wars Celebration.

DOZIER: If you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at directcurrent@hq.doe.gov or tweet @ENERGY. Help us spread the word by telling your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We appreciate the feedback.

LANTERO: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Simon Edelman and me, Allison Lantero; with support from Paul Lester, Daniel Wood, Atiq Warraich and Ernie Ambrose. Cort Kreer does our art and design, including the snazzy new logo for our Short Circuit episodes.

DOZIER: We’re a production of the Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.

LANTERO: Until next time, thanks for listening!

(MUSIC FADES OUT)