Photograph by Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Read Caption

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill hovers near Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands on Friday.

Photograph by Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

3 Future Oil-Spill Fighters: Sponges, Superbugs, and Herders

Sponges that sop up oil, "superbugs" that devour crude, and high-efficiency chemical herders are among emerging tech for battling spills.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

In the past 20 years we've traded pagers for smart phones and library cards for Kindles. But the joint federal-industry task force charged with responding to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is still using cleanup methods that haven't changed much since the days of the Exxon Valdez.

Nearly four million gallons of oil have already spewed into the Gulf since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank last month.

Amid efforts to cap the seafloor leak, cleanup workers have been using boat-based skimmers to pick up the oil, booms to gather the slick for burning, and chemical dispersants to break the crude into smaller droplets—all parts of the oil-fighting toolkit for decades.

But options for cleaning up oily disasters may soon be more cutting-edge. New sponges, microbes, and chemicals are in development that could change the ways we respond to oil spills.

1. Sponges to Sop Up Oil Spills

Matt Gawryla was a graduate student at Case Western University when his lab professor presented him with a challenge: Make something of "a fluffy pile" sitting on a lab workstation, Gawryla said.

By the time Gawryla graduated, that fluffy pile had become AeroClay, a "sponge" made of clay and plastic that absorbs oil from water, but leaves the water behind.

Theoretically, enough of the material could soak up all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico spill, and the oil would still be usable. Other cleanup methods, such as skimmers, collect even more water than oil, making the crude too diluted to be useful. (See aerial pictures of the oil spill cleanup.)

AeroClay, Inc., a startup formed to turn the oil-sopper from prototype to reality, should have the sponge on the market within five years, said Torrey Glass, the company's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Until then, Gawryla and colleagues are tweaking the formula to determine the best shape and size for the sponge, making sure it works reliably outside the lab.

The team is considering solid blocks of the stuff or smaller pellets inside "pillows," depending on which form is easier to wring the oil from. Either option would be reusable.

"It's frustrating to all of us," marketing manager Glass added, "because we wish we had this thing commercialized today."

2. Oil-Eating Superbugs

Some microbes naturally break down petroleum, so several companies are working on oil-munching superbugs, which have been genetically altered to devour a spill more efficiently. (See "Nature Fighting Back Against Gulf Oil Spill.")

But the plan can't work—yet, said Terry Hazen, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"A lot of companies are saying they have 'magic bugs' that have the ability to degrade all types of oil," he said. But "a lot of the bacteria are grown in high-nutrient conditions in the lab."

When the bugs are added to the salty, lower-nutrient environment of the ocean or coastline, "they die immediately," he said.

Other research is looking at bacteria that already live in ocean conditions but don't naturally crave crude.

"It's technically possible that we could introduce a genetic material into indigenous bugs via a bacteriophage"—a virus that infects bacteria—to give local microbes DNA that would allow them to break down oil, Hazen said

Either that, he said, or a lab could create a completely new organism that thrives in the ocean, eats oil, and needs a certain stimulant to live, so the superbugs could be killed off after they'd done their jobs.

3. Herding Chemicals to "Fatten" the Spill for Burning

Chemical herding agents have been around since the 1970s to round up oil spills, making the stuff easier to remove—usually via burning. These agents force the oil slick to contract, the same way a drop of dish soap in a wet, greasy pan forces the grease to the edges.

As oil spills shrink in surface area, they get thicker—growing from about a millimeter (0.04 inch) to 6 millimeters (0.24 inch), said Ian Buist, director and senior engineer at SL Ross Environmental Research, a spill-control consulting firm.

This contraction makes for more efficient burn-offs: The thicker a spill is before it's burned, the more oil gets removed.

Future herders—silicon-based surfactants called superwetters—would be able to corral even more oil than traditional versions, making the process more efficient, Buist said.

Still, experts caution that even when high-tech cleaners become available, oil-spill response will continue to be a messy, hard job. That means spill prevention, not damage control, should always be a top priority.

Once a spill is in the ecosystem, Buist said, "there is no magic powder that makes oil go away."