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Caution in the Arctic

24th January 2013
Concerns have been raised over risk of drilling in the promising new frontier of

Sebastião Martins is the web editor and staff writer for Oil & Gas Technology. You can follow him on his personal Twitter account or on @OGTCavendish.

24th January 2013
Concerns have been raised over risk of drilling in the promising new frontier of the Arctic. But new methods and equipment are being developed to prevent and mitigate the effects of any oil spills
Drilling for oil in the Arctic
New methods and equipment are being developed to prevent and mitigate the effects of any oil spills

The Arctic region holds between an estimated 22-25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered petroleum reserves. However, the region’s potential resourcefulness comes at a price which activists, environmental groups and politicians have repeatedly stressed – drilling for oil there could have disastrous consequences because of the lack of technology and infrastructure to deal with a possible spill.

“The drilling conditions facing oil companies operating in the Arctic are some of the most challenging on Earth,” Greenpeace wrote in a statement to the UK parliament. “The hostile weather, freezing conditions and remote location present unprecedented challenges for dealing with a spill.”

A cross-party environment committee of British MPs went on to urge a halt to high risk oil and gas drilling in the Arctic until safety improves. The committee also called for unlimited pollution penalties and the creation of a no-drill zone.

Concerns were also voiced straight from the echelons of power of the oil and gas industry, as chief executive of French oil giant Total Christophe de Margerie declared that the risk of a spill was simply too high when it came to the Arctic Ocean.

Although the region poses hard challenges, both the oil and gas services sector and academia have vowed to overcome them, as a new wave of western technologies and projects designed to tackle oil spills in Arctic conditions hopes to render the environmentally unsustainable sustainable.

Detecting spills by natural fluorescence

UK-US based technology firm Cambridge Consultants have announced the first stage of an upcoming oil spill detection technology platform for the health, safety and environment value chain. “[The technology] aims to provide a compact, robust system that can be permanently installed,” the firm said in a press release.

Cambridge Consultants will draw on its fluorescence experience of developing detection solutions for applications such as clinical diagnostics equipment, fertility monitors and pregnancy tests for the upcoming project. The firm hopes to transfer this experience over to the oil and gas sector and detect the natural fluorescence of small amounts of oil in or on water.

“The environmental impact of oil and gas leaks has never been more visible to the public – with the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – yet the solutions currently available do not meet all the requirements in terms of performance and reliability,” said Frances Metcalfe, associate director, Oil and Gas, at Cambridge Consultants.

“Our work so far shows that any reliable oil spill detection system will need to use more than one sensing method, and the best combination will depend largely on where and how it is going to be used. An oil spill ‘alarm’ system of sensors distributed across the seabed – or a series of oil platforms – is going to need a different design solution from a system for scanning a harbour or stretch of coastline from a distance to track oil spills that might be heading for the shore,” Metcalfe added.

Oil spill response system

Norway is known for its contributions to leading health, safety and environment technologies. Norwegian classification society Dert Nortske Veritas (DNV) has developed an oil spill response system to improve year-round drilling and exploration in the Arctic region. The technology was the result of a seven-week student summer project organized by DNV in Oslo and could reduce the environmental risks of Arctic exploration, according to DNV.

“We presented a realistic, innovative Arctic oil spill response system we have called the AURORA –Arctic United Response Operation and Recovery Agreement – combining new ideas and fresh insight,” project manager Martin Andestad said.

The AURORA technology is based on a multifunctional concept vessel, the Boreast. The Boreast is capable of enacting oil spill response measures in the Arctic through several technological innovations: unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles; remote in-situ burning; towable storage bladders; and an ice cleaning conveyor belt.

AURORA could help reduce the environmental risks associated with Arctic exploration, and which have been one of the greatest challenges facing the massive initiative to reach its energy riches. The program was organized by DNV for students in their final year of a master’s degree programme.

“I am impressed by what these ten students have been able to process and produce during seven short summer weeks,” DNV CEO Henrik O. Madsen said.

Cleaning with magnets

Another new oil spill cleaning method was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Researchers at the institute have created a magnet-based method for cleaning up oil spills by testing the application and behavior of ferrofluids in water. A ferrofluid is a liquid which becomes strongly magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field.

The MIT researchers, led by Shahriar Khushrushahi of MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, plan to use sufficiently strong magnets to control the movement of oil and ultimately separate and extract the oil from the water.

The project’s concept is to draw the spilled oil into an oil-recovery vessel and mix it with a water-repellent ferrofluid whose nanoparticles would effectively magnetize the oil and separate it from the water. A set of larger magnets would be used to draw off the magnetized oil, which would then be dissociated from the ferrofluid in a separate stage of the process, while the nanoparticles could be reused.

More specifically, an array of cylindrical magnets is embedded vertically in a reservoir, and when a mixture of magnetized oil and water is introduced, beads of oil are forced to the tops of the magnets, which stick out above the water line. Once exposed, the oil beads can be scooped up by a set of large magnets configured in a Halbach array, which produces a stronger magnetic field at one end and a weaker one at the other.

In addition to using less energy than conventional practices, the MIT team also claims that with their technique, the oil could be recovered for use, offsetting much of the cost of the cleanup procedure. The researchers are expected to present their work at the International Conference on Magnetic Fluids in January 2013.