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Researchers from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) have successfully demonstrated a new oil-spill recovery process under simulated Arctic conditions. The work, which is being conducted under a grant awarded to NETL by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement, is focused on verifying that this process can have real-world applications for oil recovery in a harsh Arctic environment.

Increasingly, offshore domestic oil and natural gas exploration and production are taking place in more challenging regions, such as the ultra-deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico and the offshore Arctic waters of the United States. Offshore domestic resources currently account for approximately 17 percent of U.S. crude oil production, a figure that is expected to grow in coming years. Industry and regulatory agencies are preparing for increased exploration and production activities in the U.S. Arctic offshore waters.

Preventing oil spills is a top priority for the oil and gas industry, and the ability to avert and respond to oil spills is essential for obtaining an operating license. Oil-spill response is a challenging effort under any conditions, but responding to spills in Arctic waters—with their subzero temperatures, ice-covered waters, strong ocean currents, and dangerous operating conditions—presents unique challenges. Current mechanical methods, including booms and skimmers, are not effective for oil-spill recovery in the harsh environment of Artic regions.

NETL’s new process uses a separation unit and an adsorption step to rapidly isolate and capture oil from crushed sea ice and water. Initial laboratory-scale testing focused on the efficiency of oil separation using different temperatures, ice conditions, and detergent-like substances to enhance oil-water separation. The team’s results demonstrated high oil-recovery rates and a high oil-to-water final product, which significantly reduces waste water volume. The NETL system is capable of generating a wastewater stream with residual oil below 5.0 ppm, meeting the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirement of less than 15 ppm of residual oil and allowing direct discharge into the sea.

Current research is focused on evaluating the oil-recovery system under simulated Arctic sea conditions using authentic Alaska crude oil. Additional validation testing will focus on oil cleanup with no detergents, the removal of emulsified crude oil, spilled oil recovery under icy conditions, and oil cleanup for Pacific and Gulf of Mexico crude oils. In addition to high oil recovery, the system offers other advantages, including easy setup and operation, scalability, and the ability to be transported to remote locations.

According to Dr. Fan Shi, the lead investigator for the NETL project, “Deployment of efficient oil-spill recovery technology specifically designed and tested for use in cold water environments will ensure that the nation has the response capabilities necessary to manage a spill in Arctic conditions.”

The research team—Fan Shi, Yuhua Duan, Yee Soong, and McMahon Gray—is in the process of filing a patent for the process, “Onboard flotation system for spilled oil cleanup at sea.”