Whose Technology Will Clean Up?
More organizations are finding that it just doesn't
pay to ignore their oil spills--even small spills.
In the old days, it was easier for spillers not
to clean up marine spills than it is today. Now it's
risky, because of new legislation, stepped-up
enforcement, and the negative publicity that might
result from not cleaning up a spill.
That's good news for researchers and
entrepreneurs, because if they come up with a
winning cleanup technology, they can make a lot of
What's a winning technology? Unfortunately, it's
hard to say, because many factors determine whether
a technology will work on a given spill. The ideal
spill treatment technology would work on all types
and sizes of oil and chemical spills. It would be
inexpensive, fast-acting, nontoxic, easy to
transport, and simple to apply, with a minimum of
labor and equipment. It would work under all weather
conditions and require no collection or disposal.
Sea Sweep was designed to clean up spills on
water or land. Made from wood waste, the product is
the only absorbent for oil and chemical spills that
floats, and the only one that doesn't leach oil into
the environment, says William Mobeck, President of
Sea Sweep. "Some products use shredded paper or
peat moss. You can use them on land, but the moment
they get to water, they sink."
Because Sea Sweep is oleophilic, the oil will not
leach out. It's also hydrophobic, so it floats on
water indefinitely, even when saturated with oil.
That means the product can be contained with booms
and retrieved with skimmers or nets. If not
retrieved, the product will eventually wash ashore.
Another plus is that saturated Sea Sweep can be
burned as fuel for power plants or industrial
furnaces and unsaturated Sea Sweep is Non-Toxic and
A 1993 R&D 100 Award winner, the product is
derived from "pin chips," a wood waste
product. Sea Sweep is made by heating the pin chips
in a controlled atmosphere at a controlled
temperature for a period of time. The process
converts the hemicellulose portion of the wood to a
coating that repels water but absorbs oil.
(Typically, 1 lb of Sea Sweep absorbs 3.5 lbs of
The product was borne in the wake of the Exxon
Valdez spill on the Alaskan coast in March 1989,
when Mobeck heard about work by Thomas Reed, a
professor at Colorado School of Mines, Golden,
Colorado, together they developed Sea Sweep.
Though Sea Sweep is new, the company's customer
list already includes oil companies, fire
departments, and shipping companies.
"The spill cleanup market is made by the
enormous amount of spills around the world,
increased legislation, and the fact that everybody
is getting more environmentally conscious,"
Mobeck says. "I think because there's a product
like ours out there, more people will clean up their
spills rather than face large fines."
Each year, there are at least 8,000 spills in the
U.S. waters alone. Most of these are small spills
and sheens-- thin layers of oil that are visible.
Usually, when a big spill is cleaned up, a sheen
remains. Sheens, some of which create rainbows on
the water, are common in marinas, where spills occur
during the fueling of boats.
Federal and state regulations require that sheens
be cleaned. Typically, though, "sheens are not
cleaned, in large part because there wasn't a
suitable technology that enabled you to clean them