Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Spotlight: Detection, Mitigation of Oil within the Water Column

Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate

Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 helicopter crew and Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak pollution responders conduct an overflight in response to an oil spill in Shuyak Strait, 49 miles north of Kodiak, Alaska, Feb. 27, 2018. The Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation established a unified command in response to the oil spill as part of the service’s marine environmental protection mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 helicopter crew and Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak pollution responders conduct an overflight in response to an oil spill in Shuyak Strait, 49 miles north of Kodiak, Alaska, Feb. 27, 2018. The Coast Guard and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation established a unified command in response to the oil spill as part of the service’s marine environmental protection mission. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The Coast Guard is most widely known for its maritime safety and security missions, but the service also plays an important role in maritime stewardship through its marine environmental protection mission.

During spill incidents in navigable waterways and their tributaries, the Coast Guard serves as the federal on-scene coordinator and monitors or directs spill response efforts. The service’s Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy (CG-MER) provides guidance, policy and tools for marine environmental response planning, preparedness and operations to prevent, investigate, respond to and mitigate the threat, frequency and consequences of oil and hazardous substance releases into the nation’s navigable waters.

To support CG-MER, the Coast Guard Research and Development Center recently completed a project focused on mitigating the impacts of oil in the water column on the surrounding environment. The goal was to identify and prototype technologies capable of detecting and mitigating the impacts of oil in the water column that show promise for future commercialization and implementation.

“We need to have a strong knowledge base on oil spill science and response equipment in various environmental conditions,” said Karin Messenger, the Environment and Waterways domain lead for the Coast Guard Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program (CG-926).

The water column is the region of water that is neither the surface nor the bottom sediment of a water body, explained Alexander Balsley, the project manager and a member of the RDC’s Environment and Waterways branch. Oil can be buoyant and remain in the water column for some time following a spill, depending on factors including fuel type, spill type and environmental conditions.

For example, large quantities of subsurface oil moved throughout the river during the Athos I spill in the Delaware River in 2004, and responders were unable to track it.

“As a consequence, a nearby nuclear power plant had to be shut down to prevent oil from getting into its water intakes,” Balsley said. “That cost millions of dollars and highlighted a need for detection and response equipment for submerged oil.”

“Lessons learned and issues from the Athos I spill continue to influence research and development efforts 14 years later, demonstrating a strong bond between the Coast Guard’s RDC and the larger spill preparedness and response research and academia community,” said Kevin Sligh, CG-MER deputy office chief.

1. A prototype demonstration is conducted with Dynaflow’s microbubble oil flotation system and Alaska North Slope crude oil. The microbubble system is based on the capture of oil droplets by smaller air bubbles which are then transported to the water surface for collection by larger air bubbles. Inset: The system in the test tank before the prototype demonstration.

1. A prototype demonstration is conducted with Dynaflow’s microbubble oil flotation system and Alaska North Slope crude oil. The microbubble system is based on the capture of oil droplets by smaller air bubbles which are then transported to the water surface for collection by larger air bubbles. Inset: The system in the test tank before the prototype demonstration.
2. A prototype demonstration is conducted in the test tank at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, N.J. One of the demonstrations was an adsorbent foam pad designed by Argonne National Laboratory to attract oil as a frame containing the pads is drawn through the water column. Inset: Oil is wrung out of the adsorbent foam with a hand wringer for collection.
U.S. Coast Guard photos.

The RDC’s research projects “provide critical information we need for bolstering the nation’s spill planning and response posture,” said Cmdr. Ricardo Alonso, acting CG-MER chief, who also praised the center’s “talented technical staff.”

The project was conducted in two separate phases: detection and mitigation. For each phase, the RDC evaluated four to six contractor-submitted proposals and made selections based on technical and cost criteria. Then the contractors chosen for the project spent about eight months developing their concept design. After looking at the designs, the RDC determined if the contractor should move to prototype testing, which was another 10-to-12 months.

Four contractors conducted one prototype demonstration each. Two demonstrated detection technologies, and two demonstrated mitigation technologies.

“The goal of this project was to jumpstart research in this particular field of oil spill response,” Balsley said. “In other words, we are attempting to increase the technology readiness level of equipment for this particular area of oil spill response.”

The next step would be for contractors to use the prototype demonstration results to modify their product, conduct field testing and, ultimately, commercialize their products.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was a partner in this project.

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