New technology could aid oil spill workers

Published in the Arctic Sounder
By Victoria Barber
Aug 5th, 2010


Crewmembers aboard the Guardian spray two gallons of neon yellow dye into the Cook Inlet as part of an oil spill mapping exercise. (Alaska Newspapers, Victoria Barber)

ANCHORAGE - State, federal and industry representatives got to glimpse the changing face of oil spill response last week.

On July 29, about 20 observers boarded the fishing vessel Guardian. Normally the boat would be hauling crab pots on the Bering Sea, but that day it was dumping gallons of neon yellow liquid into the Cook Inlet. Overhead a plane made several passes as three boats equipped with boom and skimmer stood at the ready.

The yellow fluid, a biodegradable dye, was being poured by crewmembers into the inlet to demonstrate a new system that could change the way the industry responds to oil spills. Working under contract with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, a California-based company has created the new system to help skimmer crews target their oil spill recovery.

This system was launched just this year and includes several devices - an aerial multispectral camera, that take images at four different wavelengths, an infrared camera and a differential GPS unit. It is portable and can be mounted into a camera port of a small plane. The unit used during the demonstration is one of only two units currently in existence.

The cameras and sensors in the system look for one thing - not so much where the oil is, but how thick it is.

"There's an adage in oil spill recovery - you don't want to chase sheen," said Jan Svejkovsky, president of Ocean Imaging, the company that developed the equipment.

When oil gets into the ocean it creates a thin slick that floats on the surface, most of it a rainbow- or silver-colored sheen. Sheens look dramatic, but they are also misleading, Svejkovsky said.

"You see the sheens and say - 'oh my god look at all this oil.' But it's all sheens potentially and you don't know where the thick stuff is,'" Svejkovsky said.

Sheens can't be burned, skimmed or boomed. Furthermore, sheen doesn't contain very much oil. When crews with skimmers respond to a spill, they look for thick, brown or black globs of crude, because that's the oil they can clean up.

Oil disperses quickly once it's released, so timing is crucial. Crews have to get to the oil before it dissipates into the ocean if they are going to capture it. To find thick oil crews usually rely on aerial observers, who are trained to tell the difference between concentrated oil and sheens. This new system essentially replaces that observer with a computer, taking out the element of human error and speeding up the process by transmitting digital maps to a server in real time as it's flying over the site.

After the tour of the inlet, Svejkovsky projected the multispectral camera's picture of the yellow dye "spill" onto a screen in an Anchorage boardroom. In the image, the ocean looks like a violet field, with a long yellow stain trailing behind the dark spot of the Guardian. The image was sent to the boardroom while Svejkovsky was still in flight that morning. Once people on land had the image they could overlay it with details like shipping routes, coastal features or other information, Svejkovsky said.

But what the picture didn't show was the capability that's probably most exciting for Alaska - it's view of the world in infrared.

Just as a regular camera takes pictures of light and color, an infrared camera can take pictures of temperature. Oil heats and cools at a different rate than water, so the infrared camera can tell where the oil concentrations are based on the temperature difference. For infrared imaging, it doesn't matter if it's dark outside. That's important in Alaska, where it's dark much of the year.

Joseph Mullin manages the oil spill response research program under the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE). He coordinated the demonstration because he thinks it's important for agencies like the Coast Guard, oil spill response companies and state agencies to get on board with improved technologies - before they need it.

"The right time to try new technology is not in an emergency," Mullin said.

That's not how it worked out in the Gulf of Mexico. Svejkovsky's company was planning a test run in the Gulf when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, leading to a massive oil spill. Svejkovsky has been working with NOAA on mapping the spill using the new technology system since May 1.

The fact that it's already being used in the Gulf spill will probably go a long way in promoting its adoption in Alaska, said Bob Mattson, manager of the Prevention and Emergency Response Program in the Alaska Department of Environment.

The problem with oil spill technology is that operators can't dump real oil into an ocean to try the equipment out, and trace dyes or water tank conditions don't perfectly mimic a real world spill.

"One of the few silver linings in a spill is the ability to test new technology like this," Mattson said.

The system has application beyond an accidental spill. Similar technology is currently being used in Europe to help police boats illegally offloading fuel into the ocean.

Mattson said the demonstration had convinced him of the usefulness of the device, but it remained to be seen which branch of government or corporation would cough up the $100,000 to $150,000 for the equipment.

"The devil's in the details," Mattson said.

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