Spill solutions

By Abby Rhodes
November 19, 2010

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last April and sent millions of barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, Bradley engineering professor Dr. Scott Post recognized a gaping hole in engineering research.

“There’s been very little research on how to actually clean up an oil spill in the ocean. They really didn’t have much of a plan,” said Post.

Post decided to put Bradley students on the case, challenging them to create solutions to a problem puzzling experts the world over.

Students in his fluid mechanics course have been studying oil rigs and the BP disaster all semester to understand how a blowout and major spill could develop. This week they tested out a variety of methods for extracting oil from water, using a 20-foot long, five-foot wide water table in Jobst Hall.

Eleven groups each devised a unique plan to clear 100 milliliters of vegetable oil from the water. Some employed vacuum cleaners, others used absorbent materials like straw and human hair, and two groups surely scored points for creativity in utilizing remote-controlled boats.

“I assumed the oil companies already knew how to clean it up, and it wasn’t until we did this project that we learned it isn’t an exact science,” said junior Trevor Blough, whose group used a Shop-Vac to suck up oil on the water’s surface and a series of plastic containers and coffee filters to isolate the oil for measuring.

An important component of the project was designing an extraction method that could be scaled up to address a major spill.  The prospect of facing another catastrophe like the BP disaster has inspired environmental groups to begin harvesting ideas from young engineers. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge is offering $1.5 million to a winning solution, and Post hopes his students will further develop their cleanup concepts for entry into the international competition.

Blough’s group proved the most successful in Post’s lab, extracting 80 percent of the oil, but several other teams weren’t far behind. 

“We think our idea would be pretty scalable, using a large ship and pumps on either side and possibly some booms to guide the oil to the back of the ship,” said Blough. “And if another group does well today, I would be interested in joining a team to enter the contest.”