Innovation takes the chore out of oil cleanups

April 30, 2003

Brussels, 29 Apr 2003

Cleaning up after oil spills like last year's Prestige disaster can be a labour-intensive and dirty business. But help is at hand. Several European projects have come up with innovative ways of making fragile coasts as good as new.

Oil spills pose an enormous threat to marine and coastal environments. Images of oil-soaked fauna have been matched in recent years by scenes of oil-stained volunteers painstakingly shovelling polluted sand into containers to be taken away or cleaned manually. But there is a better way of doing this, according to scientists.

A Franco-German consortium has come up with a prototype for scrubbing fouled sands in the wake of oil spills, such as last year's Prestige off the Spanish coast and the Erika off the coast of Brittany in December 1999. The consortium's patented cold process, which separates solid and liquid media from hydrocarbons, offers several advantages over traditional approaches. It can be used at the spill location, produces no by-product pollutants, and the oil can even be re-used once it has been thoroughly separated from the sand.

Central to the process is the introduction of a new hydrophobic polymer made up of foam beads, or 'biobilles', which act on the hydrocarbons. Working along the lines of a sophisticated cement mixer, the device takes oil-tainted sand and churns it until the oil separates, leaving purified sand. The group have announced, through the Euro Info Centre in Trier, that they are looking for partners to manufacture the design.

What about the water?

Other European research has focused on cleaning waterborne oil spills. A Greek research institute has developed a new technique for cleaning oil spills in water using magnetic separation. Spraying a specially designed material ('cleanmag') over the contaminated area soaks up the oil while at the same time magnetising it.

Next, the magnetically charged oil particles are collected using a vessel equipped with, say, an electromagnetic scoop or conveyor system. In testing, the patented material has proven to be almost 100% effective at oil recovery. The researchers also boast that 'cleanmag' is non-toxic and recyclable, making it environmentally safe as well.

This is the first time magnetic separation has been used to clean up waterborne oil spills. This innovation is not only important for Greece, which is heavily involved in oil shipping, but also for countries all around the world with exposed shorelines. The Greek research team has notified the Hellenic Innovation Relay Centre that it is looking for joint venture partners to continue developing the system.

Source: CORDIS, EU sources


More information on this subject:

See 'Oil spills could spell long-term damage'

Franco-German 'biobille' oil separation project

Greek 'cleanmag' oil separation project

EIC Trier

IRC Athens

DG Research ndex_en.html ines.html#02

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