Peat Moss May Save the Seas

Norwegians rethink oil spill clean-up technologies.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Norwegian researchers are currently working on novel oil clean-up technologies that could play a major role in any future Deepwater Horizon-type incidents.

NorLense, Stronstad, has made innovative strides in oil boom technology and is partially funded by the PETROMAKS program at the Research Council of Norway, Oslo.  NorLense's objective has been to develop a versatile new system for oil spill contingency that can perform in coastal areas and farther out to sea — as well as in rough weather and difficult currents.

The company's system consists of: a boom designed to function with a separator, and a skimmer for coping with oil partially submerged by breaking waves. The concept's most important innovations are a separator integrated into the boom and how discharged oil is collected and pumped, together with water, into tanks on board a collection vessel, which could be an ordinary fishing vessel.

For use in coastal marine areas and on shorelines, lighter equipment that can be combined with various absorption agents is being developed. This equipment will improve preparedness to quickly launch response operations at contaminated coastal sites and facilitate tailoring of contingency measures to local conditions. In NorLense's home district in Northern Norway, for instance, the local peat serves as a good oil absorption agent.

"Quicker and more effective management of oil spills is given high priority under the PETROMAKS program," explains Tarjei N Malme, senior adviser of the Research Council of Norway. "As the Norwegian petroleum industry expands its activities to new geographic areas with potentially different weather conditions and new operating conditions, we must ensure that we keep pace by developing technology and building competence to prevent and contain acute oil spills.

Lighter equipment that can be combined with various absorption agents is being developed.

"Keep in mind that this project is still a research project — it is not fully realized," he adds, commenting on the Deepwater Horizon incident . "It is however interesting to observe the limitations in the oil spill equipment being deployed with regards to robustness to harsh weather conditions. This is exactly what the project at Norlense is trying to solve; equipment that can handle bigger waves and tougher weather, especially in near-shore conditions. My view is that there is still a big need for R&D to improve oil spill contingency, especially in bad weather conditions, or extreme areas where factors such as ice and darkness are important."

Meanwhile, Kallak Torvstrofabrikk, Trogstad, has developed a peat moss mixture with unusually good absorbent qualities. The three-man company traditionally sold treated peat moss as a component of soil for flowering plants and as growth medium. But realizing that peat moss is a remarkably good absorbent, three years ago they began to seek out other potential uses for it.

At this point Sintef, Trondheim, got involved. Sintef is the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia and each year helps more than 2,000 companies with their R&D activities.

Since then Kallak Torvstrofabrikk has been working with scientists from Sintef's marine environmental technology department to test different types of peat moss and document their properties.

The conclusions drawn from the tests were quite clear: peat moss has excellent potential, as its ability to take up oil is as good as, or in some cases even better than, other products already available on the market.

Then in the summer of 2009, the Panama-registered Full City tanker ran aground off Langesund on the south-east coast of Norway, causing severe oil contamination along much of the coast. The incident gave Kallak Torvstrofabrikk the chance to demonstrate the efficacy of its new product on land.

Peat moss was deployed on a geological conservation area near Langesund and at Stavern, according to Svein Ramstad of Sintef's marine environment department. The area was heavily contaminated and particular care needed to be taken. Gravel and stones were mixed with the peat moss and then laid back in their original position — to good effect.

"We are involved in the Deepwater Horizon incident by performing numerical modeling and as a consultant on oil dispersants. Besides that we have also suggested a program for water column monitoring," added Ramstad.

Kallak Torvstrofabrikk recently developed a series of other peat moss absorbent products such as three meter-long  "sausages" and buckets of peat moss, which the fire department and heavy machinery operators can use on spills of oil, diesel fuel or other environmentally hazardous liquids.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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