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The big clean-up: oil-spill response and monitoring

Fri 11 Jan 2019 by Ed Martin

The big clean-up: oil-spill response and monitoring
Blue Impact tested its system on a naturally occurring oil leak offshore Santa Barbara, California (credit: Blue Impact)

New technologies are driving gains in oil-spill response equipment, ensuring clean-ups are conducted quickly and monitoring is more effective

The past year has seen several noteworthy developments around oil-spill response technology, many of which originate from the Nordic countries.

In October 2018, Norwegian technology company Miros announced a contract to supply Brazilian major Petrobras with eight Oil Spill Detection (OSD) systems.

The contract came about following the February 2018 agreement between Petrobras and Brazil’s federal environmental agency Ibama, in which the oil major committed to new government standards for controlling oil discharge in water.

The Brazilian contract is demonstrative of a heightened global interest in oil spill detection and prevention equipment. Miros chief technology officer Gunnar Prytz* explained: “As a company in Norway our focus 10 years ago was the North Sea, whereas now we see a lot of interest globally for these products.” He continued: “That’s obviously good for all of us – the concern about oil spills and the need to know [how] to take action.”

The company has also observed an increased interest in oil-spill detection technology outside of the oil and gas sector, notably with external parties such as government agencies. This technology is also being employed to detect substances other than oil on the surface of the ocean.

An unmanned system has obvious health and safety benefits, reducing the exposure of operators to spills and being able to operate in higher-risk areas”

OSD is based around x-band radar and can operate in two modes, surveillance and response. Surveillance mode provides continuous monitoring for oil spills in high-risk areas and automatically detects oil spills and generates alerts. The system highlights targets to users via infrared and daylight cameras. When in response mode, OSD functions as an aid for navigating vessels toward an oil slick and positioning booms and skimmers. Infrared and visible-spectrum sensors identify the thickest parts of a spill, allowing for better positioning of booms and skimmers and more efficient dispersant application. The system can be installed on vessels, as well as on offshore installations or shore-based stations.

In May 2018, Miros announced a new version of OSD, offering a number of improvements around the algorithms and ability to detect oil, according to Dr Prytz.

He said: “It is now a multi-client application, allowing the same information in multiple locations and supporting collaboration.” He noted that the new version makes it easier to switch between response and surveillance modes.

Looking to the future, Miros is examining ways of utilising technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) to make the OSD system even easier to use.

“It is not only about working on the algorithms and the radars and processing, but also making our products and systems easy to use,” said Dr Prytz. “For example, the data can be made available on any platform, such as a mobile phone, making it easier to collaborate and access the information anywhere.”

The OSD system allows the continuous monitoring of spills, even in darkness and when aerial data is unavailable.

Another Norwegian company, Blue Impact - a spinoff of Norwegian R&D organisation SINTEF - recently showcased an unmanned oil spill response vessel called Vorax, which takes an environmentally friendly approach to tackling oil spills.

The technology, which was developed by SINTEF and commercialised through Blue Impact, uses a 6 m-long unmanned catamaran to disperse oil spills using seawater, with no need for chemicals. It moves back and forth across oil spills, pulverising the oil with high-pressure water jets into small particles that naturally occurring ocean bacteria can break down and remove.

The unmanned surface vessel (USV) can either follow a pre-programmed pattern, using a conversion system from Maritime Robotics, or can be steered manually from a mothership via remote-control. Blue Impact hopes to integrate oil-spill tracking and real-time trajectory modelling to enable near-autonomous operations.

Safety benefits 

An unmanned system has obvious health and safety benefits, reducing the exposure of operators to spills, being able to operate in higher-risk areas, and being available for longer periods than manned vessels, according to Blue Impact.

In November 2018, Vorax was tested on a naturally occurring oil leak on the seabed offshore Santa Barbara, California, an area in which the use of chemicals to handle oil spills is forbidden.

Blue Impact plans to develop and produce the system in small, medium and large sizes, allowing customisation for applications in harbour and coastal conditions, offshore and in icy and arctic waters.

Elsewhere, in September 2018 state-owned Finnish polar services company Arctia tested the oil-recovery capabilities of its LNG-powered icebreaker Polaris at sea for the first time.

LNG-powered icebreaker Polaris tested its oil-recovery capabilities at sea for the first time in September 2018 (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Aker Arctic Inc)

Integrated equipment tested in the exercise, which forms part of Arctia’s autumn testing schedule for its icebreaker fleet, included Polaris’ skimmer and collection booms.

Built at Arctech Helsinki shipyard in 2016, Polaris was the first LNG-powered icebreaker in the world when it entered service in 2017. It has an ice class of PC4.

The vessel measures 110 m in length by 24 m in breadth, with an operational draught of 8 m. It has a Wärtsilä package of two 6,000 kW, two 4,500 kW and one 1,280 kW dual-fuel engines and is fitted with three ABB Azipod propulsion units. The Lamor oil recovery system means Polaris can collect 1,015 m3 of oil at a rate of 200 m3 per hour in bad weather and ice conditions.

Polaris’ LNG propulsion can support the slow speeds – usually close to 2 knots – required for successful oil recovery in open sea. The vessel’s manoeuvrability also helps this process, as sideways operation enables the entire side of the vessel to be used to direct oil into the collection tank in rough water.

Arctia’s communications manager Eero Hokkanen explained the logic behind equipping icebreakers to work as oil recovery vessels, noting that such preparation “would be sensible in order to safeguard a sufficient level of oil recovery preparedness in the Gulf of Finland and the entire northern Baltic Sea.”

Arctia also operates Kontio, a specialised oil recovery icebreaker with an ice class of 1A Super. Launched in 1987, Kontio was outfitted with oil-recovery equipment in 2010, with funding from the European Maritime Safety Agency. It is fitted with rigid sweeping arms, which can have either suction pumps or brush skimmers attached, and which float alongside the vessel’s hull and guide oil into its recovery system. It has a tank volume of more than 2,000 m3 for recovered oil. The vessel measures 99 m in length by 24.2 m in breadth and has a draft of 8 m. It is powered by 15 MW Wärtsilä 16V32 main engines, with a top speed of 18.6 knots and a bollard pull of 160 tonnes.

* Dr Prytz will be speaking on another area of Miros’ activities, wave monitoring, at the Offshore Wind Journal Conference in London on 5 February 2019.

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