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How Oil Spills are cleaned in the ocean

Last year alone, 10,000 tonnes of oil were lost to the ocean. And as many might know, oil spills are incredibly hazardous as they affect the marine ecosystem, and unnecessarily threaten many life-forms, both on land and underwater. However, most oil spills are accidental, so it is imperative that in the unfortunate case of one, there are solutions that can help clean up the mess.

Oil booms (Geektime)

  1. Oil Booms: A popular method to help control oil spills, oil booms are physical, floating barriers. They not only slow the spread of oil but also keep it contained in the area it is spilled in. They practically act like a fence, and can be positioned by using anchors, landlines or any effective mooring systems. In order to achieve their goal of preventing any further damage, they are made of three significant parts: First and foremost, the “freeboard” - It’s the part above the surface that is designed to contain the oil and prevent it from spilling over as well as protect waves from splashing it. Secondly, there’s the “draft” - it’s a weighted skirt or underwater curtain. It prevents any of the oil underwater from further spreading as well as reduces the amount of oil lost below the boom. Thirdly, there is a cable or chain that connects parts together to strengthen and stabilize the boom. Covered in plastic, they prevent any oil from escaping through the gaps. With oil booms, not only is oil contained but they also concentrate it - they make the layers thicker which makes collecting or recovering the oil easier. Unluckily, they are only effective when the oil is situated in one spot and can’t be deployed during rough weather.

  2. Skimmers: The second method used is a skimmer - a mechanical device used to suck up the oil from the water’s surface. It works like a vacuum and can either be self-propelled or operated from a vessel or boat (the method of usage depends on the scenario). Basically, skimmers are used to scoop up oil for it to be reused. Most of the time, skimmers are extremely effective, often collecting most of the oil lost for reuse. Thus, they’re very economically viable. On the other hand, skimmers are highly dependent on the roughness of the water. Because there’s no particularly detailed filter, if the water is violent or choppy, it can easily take in lots of water with the oil as well. Regardless, skimmers are the most efficient approach to cleaning up oil despite their simple design.

  3. Sorbents: They are best explained as materials that help soak up the oil. They either help by absorption, by pulling in liquids through their pores, or adsorption, by forming a layer on the surface. Due to these properties, sorbents effectively eases collecting the oil afterwards and cleaning up. Examples of sorbents include peat moss, straw, vermiculite and synthetic varieties like plastic foams or fibers. However, there’s an obvious disadvantage. If these materials soak up too much oil, they can grow to be 3 or 15 times their original weight, leading to them sinking. If they sink, they pose a greater threat to the marine ecosystem as creatures could unknowingly consume them. Thus, they have to be removed at the right time, and would be best used in cleaning up small or traces of spills.

  4. Manual Labour: Pretty self-explanatory. This is a procedure in which mankind uses tools, hand-held means like rakes and shovels, to clean oil from the water’s surface and place it instead in special containers to be removed. If needed, mechanical devices, for instance skimmers, can be used to help speed up the process or reach inaccessible areas. Of course, this process is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, but because it doesn’t require a large skillset, this method proves to be very economically viable. However, manual labor is often used at shorelines and not far out in sea.

  5. Bioremediation: This is when specific oil-degrading microorganisms are used to consume or break down toxic and harmful substances in the ocean, like oil. Some examples of the microorganisms used are bacteria, fungi, archaea, hydrocarbons and algae. They can metabolize and break down petroleum products into non-toxic molecules. Occasionally, phosphorus-based and nitrogen-based fertilizers are added. They help provide nutrients for the microorganisms to multiply quicker, speeding up the process. However, they also help unwanted algae to grow, which is also a negative impact to marine life as the algae can cut off sunlight and reduce oxygen. Also, this process would take years, and even with assistance, it would take a lot of time until the mess can be cleared up. Nevertheless, bioremediation is an effective way to clean up water sources and improve air quality, despite how time-consuming it might be.

In conclusion, each of these methods has their own advantages and disadvantages, but they are all helpful in their own way. But even though they might be a good solution to oil spills, the best option would be to never have to use them in the first place.


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