Oil Spills: Cleanup and Containment

oil spills cleanup method

Oil spills are a major environmental hazard. Any oil spill has the potential to negatively affect the plants and animals that live in both the water and the land for many years to come. These spills are not only hazardous, they’re difficult to clean, which only adds to the long lasting damages caused by them. Understanding some of the current methods that work to clean oil spills can help in the search for new and better cleaning and and recovery methods.

Oil Spills Clean up Process

Skimming the Surface

Oil Skimmers

Oil skimmers are a commonly used tool for cleaning oil spills. There are several varieties of these skimmers, but their purpose is the same: they separate the oil from the water to clean it.

When their is an oil spill, an oil skimmer is often one of the first pieces of equipment utilized during efforts to clean the water. Generally, oil skimmers use a material that attracts oil in order to draw the oil out of the water. There are three main types of oil skimmers – the weir skimmer, the drum Skimmer, and the disk Skimmer.

Weir Skimmer

Weir skimmers work by floating in the water in the area where the oil spill occurred. Water and oil both flow through the floating system, which is designed to retain the oil and allow the water to flow back out. Once the weir skimmer has reached its capacity for oil, it can be retrieved and the oil can be disposed of.

Some weir skimmers have a weir that is designed to adjust itself to the level of the water as it floats. This is useful for bodies of water that have changing water levels due to waves or other factors.

Drum Skimmer

Drum skimmers are typically made of aluminum and include a rotating oleophilic oil drum. This means that the drum is made of materials that attract oil. As the oil-covered water passes through the skimmer, the drum attracts the oil and rotates it through scrapers that then deposit the oil in a container.

Drum skimmers can be used in shallow or deep water, but is not usually appropriate in bodies of water that fluctuate greatly. Drum skimmers are very efficient at cleaning large amounts of oil out of water, and these skimmers are longer-lasting than other types of skimmers.

Disk Skimmer

Disk skimmers are similar to drum skimmers in design and function. Instead of a rotating drum, a disk skimmers uses a series of spinning oleophillic disks to separate oil from the water.

In order to work properly, disk skimmers need to be fully submerged in water. This means that they are not appropriate for very shallow water, but they are highly effective in deeper levels of water.

For many small oil spills, an oil skimmer is all that is required to fully clean the water.

 Begin by Booming

Oil Skimmers

The Basics of Booms

While booms cannot clean up an oil spill by themselves, these barriers are some of the most essential equipment when dealing with any type of oil spill. Theyre usually the first line of defense when an oil spill occurs, and booms are usually present until after all other cleanup methods have been exhausted. There are three major types of booming tactics that are commonly associated with oil spills.

Containment Booming

Containment booming should be employed as soon as the oil spill occurs. The purpose of containment booming is to contain the oil in one place, or at least slow down its movement while cleanup methods are employed. The booms that are used for containment are designed to float on top of the water. These booms are designed to work on the surface of the water as well as several feet below the surface.

Containment booming is most effective in still waters. Waves and water moving at high speeds will result in oil getting past the boom, though its progress will still be slowed. Other booming tactics used in conjunction with containment booming can help stop and gather the oil.

Diversion Booming

Once a containment boom is in place, a diversion boom may be used to help guide the contaminated water to another area for cleaning. These booms change the direction of moving water, sending it to whatever area is currently serving as a cleaning station. A series of diversion booms may be needed in fast moving water.

Exclusion Booming

Exclusion booming is used to offer protection to areas that might otherwise come in contact with the oil. For example, an exclusion boom could be set up along a shoreline in order to keep oil from the spill from reaching the shore. This tactic can be used in conjunction with both containment booming and diversion booming.

A series of properly placed booms can substantially minimize damage caused by an oil spill.

Clay Cleaners

Absorbent sponges made of clay, polymer, and water are another useful tool for cleaning up oil spills. These sponges absorb oil but not water, which means that the oil they absorb can be reused.

When you spill something in your kitchen at home, chances are that a sponge is the first thing that you reach for to clean up the mess. Its possible that sponges are the answer when it comes to more environmentally hazardous spills as well.

Whats a Clay Sponge?

Clay sponges are the brainchild of a graduate student at Case Western University. Matt Gawryla was challenged by a professor to make something of some materials that were lying around a lab, and make something he did: a sponge that soaks up oil, leaving water behind. The sponge is a mixture of clay, polymer, and water blended together and freeze dried. The material floats on water and absorbs oil, but not water.

Advantages of Clay

The thing that makes the clay sponge revolutionary isn’t the fact that it floats, or even the fact that it absorbs oil. Floating oleophillic oil skimmers currently do both of those things. The difference is that oil skimmers also collect water. The oil collected by the skimmers is diluted and not suitable to be reused.

Matt Gawrylas clay sponges, on the other hand, do not absorb water. They only soak up oil, and the collected oil can be wrung out of the sponges and reused. Not only do clay sponges show promise as a way of cleaning contaminated water, they also address the problem of wasted oil, a resource that is always in limited supply.

Whats more, the clay sponges, which can be produced in the form of solid blocks or smaller pellets that can be scattered over an area of water, are also reusable. This could prove useful in the waters surrounding many different industrial areas.

Clay may very well prove to be one of the most effective and efficient ways to clean up a messy oil spill.

Concerned Conservationist

Because oil spills are so destructive, they should be high on the list of things that any conservationist is concerned with. Working toward better cleanup and containment methods is an important environmental goal.


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