Burning now an option to clean up ocean oil spills previously thought incombustible

June 13, 2001

University Park, Pa. --- Penn State researchers have shown in laboratory experiments that some open water oil spills previously thought to be incombustible potentially can be cleaned up via burning, the most efficient, rapid and environmentally friendly option.

Dr. Anil K. Kulkarni, professor of mechanical engineering, says, "Oil spill combustion can be a highly effective clean up measure for contained spills occurring on open water bodies, such as an oil spill on the ocean contained by booms or a spill surrounded by ice. When feasible, it is an inexpensive technique that can have a very high efficiency of removal, possibly greater than 99 percent. The burning is very rapid and any resulting ecological damage is less severe compared to conventional oil removal methods."

However, the window of opportunity for using burning is often limited by wave and wind conditions and by the proximity of the spill to populated areas. In addition, over time, oil spilled at sea becomes mixed with water forming an emulsion that is difficult or impossible to ignite.

Now, Penn State researchers have widened the applicability of burning by showing that diesel fuel emulsions up to 80 percent water and crude oil emulsions up to 35 percent water can be ignited. In laboratory experiments, they demonstrated that positioning an external radiant heat source near the spill facilitates ignition. In addition, they have developed simple charts for use as a quick reference to determine the minimum external heat source needed to facilitate burning.

Kulkarni points out, however, that an open water demonstration still needs to be done to show proof of concept.

The Penn State researcher detailed the findings at the Arctic and Marine Oil Spill Program meeting in Calgary, Canada, June 14 in a paper, "Combustion of Mixtures of Weathered Alaskan Crude Oils and Water under External Heat Flux." His co-author is A. .Y. Walavalkar, who recently earned his doctorate at Penn State; part of the work was the subject of Walavalkar's doctoral dissertation.

In the Penn State laboratory experiments, two electrically operated heating panels were used to supply an external radiant heat source. The panels were positioned over a pool of water about ten inches deep. The researchers poured oil and water emulsions to a desired thickness on the water and then applied the external heat source at a predetermined level.

After the surface temperature reached a certain preset value, an attempt was made to ignite the emulsion. Upon failure to cause ignition, the heat flux level of the panels was increased by a small amount. The process was repeated until sustained combustion was achieved and the minimum critical heat flux needed to ignite the sample was determined.

Kulkarni says that, in actual open water conditions, an external heat flux could come from an adjacent deliberately set fire. "A small fire will not produce sufficient heat flux, but if the fire's size is sufficiently large, it will provide the needed minimum heat flux for the surrounding emulsion to ignite and burn. As the emulsion ignites, the fire's size will grow, providing an even larger heat flux to the yet-unburned emulsion, causing it to ignite in a chain reaction that will continue until all of the emulsion is burned. In this way, a spill previously considered incombustible can be removed," he explains.

In subsequent experiments, the Penn State researchers found that he could correlate oils and emulsions with the same density with the radiant heat needed to facilitate their ignition. He says, "Using density measurements of a specific spill will make it easier for people who are managing the clean up to decide what to do. Rather than try to decide whether to attempt burning the spill based on the type of oil it is, for example Alaskan North Slope, Milne Point crude, or diesel, they can measure the spill's density and then consult the charts we've developed to determine how large a heat flux would be needed."
-end-
The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

EDITORS: Dr. Kulkarni is at 814-865-7073 or akk@psu.edu by email. Dr. Kulkarni has VHS video tape available of the laboratory burning experiments.

Penn State

Related Oil Spill Articles from Brightsurf:

Oil spill clean- up gets doggone hairy
A study investigating sustainable-origin sorbent materials to clean up oil spill disasters has made a surprising discovery.

Political 'oil spill': Polarization is growing stronger and getting stickier
Experts have documented that political polarization is intensifying in the United States.

Oil spill: where and when will it reach the beach? Answers to prevent environmental impacts
When an accident involving oil spills occurs, forecasting the behaviour of the oil slick and understanding in advance where and when it will reach the coastline is crucial to organize an efficient emergency response that is able to limit environmental and economic repercussions.

Chemical herders could impact oil spill cleanup
Oil spills in the ocean can cause devastation to wildlife, so effective cleanup is a top priority.

Study shows continuing impacts of Deepwater Horizon oil spill
Nine years ago tomorrow -- April 20, 2010 -- crude oil began leaking from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig into the Gulf of Mexico in what turned out to be the largest marine oil spill in history.

New report examines the safety of using dispersants in oil spill clean ups
A multi-disciplinary team of scientists has issued a series of findings and recommendations on the safety of using dispersal agents in oil spill clean-up efforts in a report published this month by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

What plants can teach us about oil spill clean-up, microfluidics
For years, scientists have been inspired by nature to innovate solutions to tricky problems, even oil spills -- manmade disasters with devastating environmental and economic consequences.

Top oil spill expert available to discuss new oil spill dispersant research
Internationally recognized oil spill expert, Nancy Kinner, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire is available to discuss new post-Deepwater Horizon (DWH) dispersant research and its use in future oil spill responses.

Gulf spill oil dispersants associated with health symptoms in cleanup workers
Workers who were likely exposed to dispersants while cleaning up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill experienced a range of health symptoms including cough and wheeze, and skin and eye irritation, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

New view of dispersants used after Deepwater Horizon oil spill
New research has uncovered an added dimension to the decision to inject large amounts of chemical dispersants above the crippled seafloor oil well during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

Read More: Oil Spill News and Oil Spill Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.