Absorbing News

Mobeck & ReedOIL SPILLS

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 money.

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 Biodegradable.

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 oil.)

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 cost-effectively."




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