Oil spill clean-up technology could provide solution to sinking bitumen

Ingenuity Lab director Carlo Montemagno holds carbon nanotube mesh material developed by the lab for oil spill clean-up in marine environments. Image: Richard Siemens/University of Alberta

One of the biggest concerns about oilsands spills in marine environments is the prospect the bitumen will sink into the water column, making clean-up difficult. Now an invention created at the University of Alberta based on carbon-nanotube mesh technology could provide a solution.

The Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology accelerator based at the university, was able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the membrane a year ago, said Carlo Montemagno, Ingenuity Lab director. With the infusion of $1.7 million from Natural Resources Canada announced this week, it will develop a system for producing it at a large scale.

The carbon-nanotech mesh has been incorporated with other minerals and polymers to act as a sponge that absorbs oil on and under the surface of water bodies. After it is saturated with oil, the multifunctional stimuli-responsive membrane is exposed to ultraviolet light, heat or electricity, which makes it expel the hydrocarbons.

Lab tests have indicated the material is capable of cleaning up nearly 100 per cent of oil submerged in water. It can then be reused and the separated oil can be sold.

“I’m hoping we are going to start having a commercial product in three to four years,” Montemagno said in an interview. “It may not be that we can do deep subsurface in four years, but we will probably be able to do, for instance, oil-water separation and surface clean-ups by then.

“The driver for this is to develop a technology for oil that is denser than water,” he said. “There is no viable technology for cleaning up oil spills in the ocean or in waters where the oil sinks below the surface—everything [now available] is surface skimming. So this technology allows us to drag something below the surface and kind of mop it up.”

While bitumen has been cited for its propensity to sink, Montemagno noted the same problem was experienced in the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when a blowout occurred on the sea floor, resuting in the biggest spill in U.S. history. “The vast majority of that oil was below the surface and there was no way of cleaning it up,” he said. “That is one of the things we are targeting with this technology.”

The Ingenuity Lab is working with oilsands producer Cenovus Energy to move the technology to the preproduction pilot stage, with the intention to begin real-world field testing in less than two years, Montemagno said. “They are contributing resources to this and we are in the process now of designing and building a preproduction system.

“Right now we make things really small—they are roughly the size of a sheet of paper—and so we are in the process now of building a continuous production system to have the technology to build many hundreds of square metres of material. The first system is going to be a preproduction prototype that will give us enough material to begin looking at field testing.”

The mission of the Ingenuity Lab is to develop solutions to significant societal problems and translate those solutions to the marketplace, Montemagno added. If the scale-up goes according to plan, the material could one day be manufactured in Alberta, he said.

In addition to its use on aquatic oil spills, for which there would be a worldwide market for the product, the carbon-nanotube mesh material has potential application in other industries where separation of emulsions is necessary.