Scientists find burning is the best method of cleaning up oil spills

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have discovered that oil spills, previously thought incombustible because they contained too much water, can be ignited and burnt away faster than the oil can be removed by current methods, according to Industrial Environmental Management (IEM) magazine.

Dr Anil Kulkarni, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, confirms that burning may be the most efficient, rapid and environmentally friendly option available. “Oil spill combustion is a highly effective clean up measure for contained spills surrounded by booms or ice,” he said. “When feasible, it is an inexpensive technique with an incredibly high efficiency removing more than 99% of the oil. The burning is rapid and contributes less ecological damage than any other oil removal method.”

Previously, oil spills that were not dealt with immediately mixed with water and became impossible to burn, forcing clean-up services to resort to less efficient methods. Dr Kulkarni’s research has shown that diesel fuel emulsions up to 80% water and crude oil emulsions up to 35% can be ignited by placing a radiant heat source near the spill. However, while laboratory tests have confirmed the process, Dr Kularni points out that an open water demonstration still needs to be done.

In open water conditions, an external heat source could be a deliberately set fire positioned adjacent to the spill. This will provide the minimum heat flux for the oil nearest to the fire to ignite and burn, which then would initiate a chain reaction through the rest of the spill. The only limitation in using burning is that the process depends on wave and wind conditions and the proximity to populated areas.

The article will be published in the August issue of IEM magazine.

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