Tag Archives: Gulf of Mexico

Would you like to invest in the Argonne National Laboratory’s reusable oil spill sponge?

A March 7, 2017 news item on phys.org describes some of the US Argonne National Laboratory’s research into oil spill cleanup technology,

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling pipe blew out seven years ago, beginning the worst oil spill [BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico] in U.S. history, those in charge of the recovery discovered a new wrinkle: the millions of gallons of oil bubbling from the sea floor weren’t all collecting on the surface where it could be skimmed or burned. Some of it was forming a plume and drifting through the ocean under the surface.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that addresses this problem. The material not only easily adsorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.

A March 6, 2017 Argonne National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, provides more information about the work,

“The Oleo Sponge offers a set of possibilities that, as far as we know, are unprecedented,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and a fellow of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering.

We already have a library of molecules that can grab oil, but the problem is how to get them into a useful structure and bind them there permanently.

The scientists started out with common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation. This foam has lots of nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, which could provide ample surface area to grab oil; but they needed to give the foam a new surface chemistry in order to firmly attach the oil-loving molecules.

Previously, Darling and fellow Argonne chemist Jeff Elam had developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis, or SIS, which can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures.

After some trial and error, they found a way to adapt the technique to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide “primer” near the foam’s interior surfaces. This serves as the perfect glue for attaching the oil-loving molecules, which are deposited in a second step; they hold onto the metal oxide layer with one end and reach out to grab oil molecules with the other.

The result is Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water. The material, which looks a bit like an outdoor seat cushion, can be wrung out to be reused—and the oil itself recovered.

Oleo Sponge

At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

“The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all,” Darling said.

Oleo Sponge could potentially also be used routinely to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization division.

Elam, Darling and the rest of the team are continuing to develop the technology.

“The technique offers enormous flexibility, and can be adapted to other types of cleanup besides oil in seawater. You could attach a different molecule to grab any specific substance you need,” Elam said.

The team is actively looking to commercialize [emphasis mine] the material, Harvey said; those interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development may contact partners@anl.gov.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Advanced oil sorbents using sequential infiltration synthesis by Edward Barry, Anil U. Mane, Joseph A. Libera, Jeffrey W. Elam, and Seth B. Darling. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2017,5, 2929-2935 DOI: 10.1039/C6TA09014A First published online 11 Jan 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

The two most recent posts here featuring oil spill technology are my Nov. 3, 2016 piece titled: Oil spill cleanup nanotechnology-enabled solution from A*STAR and my Sept. 15, 2016 piece titled: Canada’s Ingenuity Lab receives a $1.7M grant to develop oil recovery system for oil spills. I hope that one of these days someone manages to commercialize at least one of the new oil spill technologies. It seems that there hasn’t been much progress since the BP (Deepwater Horizon) oil spill. If someone has better information than I do about the current state of oil spill cleanup technologies, please do leave a comment.

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab receives a $1.7M grant to develop oil recovery system for oil spills

A Sept. 15, 2016 news item on Benzinga.com describes the reasons for the $1.7M grant for Alberta’s (Canada) Ingenuity Lab to develop an oil spill recovery system,

Since 2010’s tragic events, which saw BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster desecrate the Gulf of Mexico, oil safety has been on the forefront of the environmental debate and media outrage. In line with the mounting concerns continuing to pique public attention, at the end of this month [Sept. 2016], Hollywood will release its own biopic of the event. As can be expected, more questions will be raised about what exactly went wrong, in addition to fresh criticism aimed at the entire industry.

One question that is likely to emerge is how do we prevent such a calamity from ever happening again? Fortunately, some of the brightest minds in science have been preparing for such an answer.

One team that has been focusing on this dilemma is Alberta-based, multi-disciplinary research initiative Ingenuity Lab. The institution has just secured $1.7m in project funding for developing a highly advanced system for recovering oil from oil spills. This injection of capital will enable Ingenuity Lab to conduct new research and develop commercial production processes for recovering heavy oil spills in marine environments. The technology is centred on cutting edge nanowire-based stimuli-responsive membranes and devices that are capable for recovering oil.

A Sept. 15, 2016 Ingenuity Lab news release on MarketWired, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the oil spill situation,

Oil is a common pollutant in our oceans; more than three million metric tonnes contaminate the sea each year. When crude oil is accidentally released into a body of water by an oil tanker, refinery, storage facility, underwater pipeline or offshore oil-drilling rig, it is an environmental emergency of the most urgent kind.

Depending on the location, oil spills can be highly hazardous, as well as environmentally destructive. Consequently, a timely clean up is absolutely crucial in order to protect the integrity of the water, the shoreline and the numerous creatures that depend on these habitats.

Due to increased scrutiny of the oil industry with regard to its unseemly environmental track record, attention must be focused on the development of new materials and technologies for removing organic contaminants from waterways. Simply put, existing methods are not sufficiently robust.

Fortuitously, however, nanotechnology has opened the door for the development of sophisticated new tools that use specifically designed materials with properties that are ideally suited to enable complex separations, including the separation of crude oil from water.

Ingenuity Lab’s project focuses on the efficient recovery of oil through the development of this novel technology using a variety of stimuli-responsive nanomaterials. When the time comes for scale up production for this technology, Ingenuity Lab will work closely with industry trendsetters, Tortech Nanofibers.

This project forms a strong element of the Oil Spill Response Science (OSRS), which is part of Canada’s world-class tanker safety system for Responsible Resource Development. Through this programme, the Canadian Government ensures that the country’s resource wealth can be safely developed and transported to market, thus creating new jobs and economic growth for all Canadians.

From a communications standpoint, the news release is well written and well strategized to underline the seriousness of the situation and to take advantage of renewed interest in the devastating (people’s lives were lost and environmental damage is still being assessed) 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to the upcoming movie titled, Deepwater Horizon. A little more information about the team (how many people, who’s leading the research, are there international and/or interprovincial collaborators?), plans for the research (have they already started? what work, if any, are they building on? what challenges are they facing?) and some technical details would have been welcome.

Regardless, it’s good to hear about this initiative and I wish them great success with it.

You can find our more about Ingenuity Lab here and Tortech Nanofibers here. Interestingly, Tortech is a joint venture between Israel’s Plasan Sasa and the UK’s Q-Flo. (Q-Flo is a spinoff from Cambridge University.) One more thing, Tortech Nanofibers produces materials made of carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Presumably Ingenuity’s “nanowire-based stimuli-responsive membranes” include carbon nanotubes.

Naimor: innovative nanostructured material for water remediation and oil recovery (crowdfunding project)

The NAIMOR crowdfunding project on indiegogo might be of particular interest to those of us on the West Coast of Canada where there is much talk about a project to create twin pipelines (Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines) between the provinces of  Alberta and British Columbia to export oil and import natural gas. The oil will be shipped to Asia by tanker and presumably so will the natural gas. In all the discussion about possible environmental disasters, I haven’t seen any substantive mention of remediation efforts or research to improve the technologies associated with environmental cleanups (remediation of water, soil, and/or air). At any rate, all this talk about the pipelines and oil tankers along Canada’s West Coast brought to mind the BP oil spill, aka the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill (also referred to as the BP oil spill, the BP oil disaster, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the Macondo blowout) began on 20 April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. It claimed eleven lives[5][6][7][8] and is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, an estimated 8% to 31% larger in volume than the previously largest, the Ixtoc I oil spill. Following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed for 87 days, until it was capped on 15 July 2010.[7][9] The total discharge has been estimated at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3).[3]

A massive response ensued to protect beaches, wetlands and estuaries from the spreading oil utilizing skimmer ships, floating booms, controlled burns and 1.84 million US gallons (7,000 m3) of Corexit oil dispersant.[10] After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on 19 September 2010.[11] Some reports indicate the well site continues to leak.[12][13] Due to the months-long spill, along with adverse effects from the response and cleanup activities, extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats, fishing and tourism industries, and human health problems have continued through 2013.[14][15] Three years after the spill, tar balls could still be found on the Mississippi coast.[16] In July 2013, the discovery of a 40,000 pound tar mat near East Grand Terre, Louisiana prompted the closure of waters to commercial fishing.[17][18]

While Canada’s Northern Gateway project does not include any plans for ocean oil rigs, there is still the potential for massive spills either from the tankers or the pipelines. For those old enough to remember or those interested in history, this latest project raises the spectre of the Exxon Valdes oil spill, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef at 12:04 a.m.[1] local time and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels (41,000 to 119,000 m3) of crude oil[2][3] over the next few days. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters.[4] The Valdez spill was the largest ever in US waters until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in terms of volume released.[5]  [emphasis mine] However, Prince William Sound’s remote location, accessible only by helicopter, plane, or boat, made government and industry response efforts difficult and severely taxed existing plans for response. The region is a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds. The oil, originally extracted at the Prudhoe Bay oil field, eventually covered 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline,[6] and 11,000 square miles (28,000 km2) of ocean.[7] Exxon’s CEO, Lawrence Rawl, shaped the company’s response.[8]

Some of that ‘difficult to reach’ coastline and habitat was Canadian (province of British Columbia). Astonishingly, given the 20 year gap between the Exxon Valdes spill and the Deepwater Horizon spill, the technology for remediation and cleanup had not changed much, although it seems that the measures* used to stop the oil spill were even older, from my June 4, 2010 posting,

I found a couple more comments relating to the BP oil spill  in the Gulf. Pasco Phronesis offers this May 30, 2010 blog post, Cleaning With Old Technology, where the blogger, Dave Bruggeman, asks why there haven’t been any substantive improvements to the technology used for clean up,

The relatively ineffective measures have changed little since the last major Gulf of Mexico spill, the Ixtoc spill in 1979. While BP has solicited for other solutions to the problem (Ixtoc was eventually sealed with cement and relief wells after nine months), they appear to have been slow to use them.

It is a bit puzzling to me why extraction technology has improved but cleanup technology has not.

An excellent question.

I commented a while back (here) about another piece of nano reporting from* Andrew Schneider. Since then, Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast has offered some additional thoughts (independent of reading Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science post) about the Schneider report regarding ‘nanodispersants’ in the Gulf. From Dexter’s post,

Now as to the efficacy or dangers of the dispersant, I have to concur that it [nanodispersant] has not been tested. But it seems that the studies on the 118 oil-controlling products that have been approved for use by the EPA are lacking in some details as well. These chemicals were approved so long ago in some cases that the EPA has not been able to verify the accuracy of their toxicity data, and so far BP has dropped over a million gallons of this stuff into the Gulf.

Point well taken.

In looking at this website: gatewayfacts.ca, it seems the proponents for the Enbridge Northern Gateway project have supplied some additional information. Here’s what they’ve supplied regarding the project’s spill response (from the Gateway Facts environmental-responsibility/marine-protection page),

A spill response capacity 3x better than required

Emergency response equipment, crews and training staff will be stationed at key points and communities along the marine routes.

I did find a bit more on the website’s What if? page,

Marine response in action

Our spill response capacity will be more than 3x the current Canadian regulation. In addition, tanker escort tugs will carry emergency response and firefighting equipment to be able to respond immediately.

I don’t feel that any real concerns have been addressed by this minimalist approach to communication. Here are some of my questions,

  • What does 3x the current Canadian regulation mean in practical terms and how does this compare with the best safety regulations from an international perspective? Will there be efforts at continuous improvement?
  • Are there going to be any audits by outside parties of the company’s emergency response during the life of the project?
  • How will those audits be conducted? i.e., Will there be notice or are inspectors likely to spring the occasional surprise inspection?
  • What technologies are the proponents planning to use for the cleanup?
  • Is there any research being conducted on new remediation and cleanup technologies?
  • How much money is being devoted to this research and where is it being conducted (university labs, company labs, which countries)?

In light of concerns about environmental remediation technologies, it’s heartening to see this project on indiegogo which according to a Dec. 27, 2013 news item on Nanowerk focuses on an improved approach to remediation for water contaminated by oil,,

Environmental oil spill disasters such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico have enormous environmental consequences, leading to the killing of marine creatures and contamination of natural water streams, storm water systems or even drinking water supplies. Emergency management organizations must be ready to confront such turbulences with effective and eco-friendly solutions to minimize the short term or long term issues.

There are many ineffective and costly conventional technologies for the remedy of oil spills like using of dispersants, oil skimmers, sand barrier berms, oil containment booms, by controlled burning of surface oil, bioremediation and natural degradation.

NAIMOR® – NAnostructure Innovative Material for Oil Recovery – is a three dimensional, nanostructure carbon material that can be produced in different shapes, dimensions. It is highly hydrophobic and can absorb a quantity of oil around 150 times its weight. Light, strong, and flexible, the material can be reused many times without losing its absorption capacity.

I’m not familiar with the researcher who’s making this proposal so I can’t comment on the legitimacy of the project but this does look promising (I have heard of other similar research using carbon-based materials), from the Naimor campaign on indiegogo,

Ivano Aglietto, an Italian engineer with a PhD in Environmental Engineering has devoted his profession for the production of most advanced and innovative nanostructure carbon materials and the industrial development of their proper use in applications for the environmental remediation.

His first invention was RECAM® (REactive Carbon Material), a revolutionary solution for oil spill recovery which had shown extraordinary results but with limitations of usage.

RECAM® is inert, non toxic, regenerable, reusable, eco friendly material and can absorb oil 90 times its weight. It is ferromagnetic in nature and can be recovered from water using magnetic field. The hydrocarbons absorbed can be burnt inorder to reuse the material and no toxic gases are released because of its inert and non-flammable nature. Their is also possibility of extracting the absorbed oil by squeezing the material or by vacuum filtration. Oil recovered does not contain any water because of the hydrophobic behaviour of RECAM®. Recovered oil can be reused as resource and the RECAM® for recovering oil. RECAM® is used for oil spill remediation and successfully passed the Artemia test.

RECAM® is being replaced with his new innovative nanostructure material, NAIMOR®.

NAIMOR® (NAnostructure Innovative Material for Oil Recovery) is a nanostructure material that can be produced in different shapes and dimensions with an incredible efficiency for oil recovery.

Main Characteristics and Properties

Can absorb quantity of oil 150 times its weight.
Inert, made of pure carbon, environmental friendly and no chemicals involved.
Highly hydrophobic and the absorbed oil does not contain any water.
Regenerable and can be used several times without producing any wastes.
It is a three dimensional nanostructure and can be produced in different shapes, dimensions [carpets, booms, sheets’.
Capable of recovering gallons of oil depending on the shape and dimensions of the carpet.

This indiegogo campaign is almost the antithesis of the gatewayfacts.ca website offering a wealth of information and detail including a discussion about the weaknesses associated with the various cleanup technologies that represent the ‘state of the art’. Here’s an image from the Naimor campaign page,

[downloaded from http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/naimor-nanostructure-innovative-material-for-oil-recovery]

[downloaded from http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/naimor-nanostructure-innovative-material-for-oil-recovery]

I believe this is a pelican somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico coastline where it was affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As for Aglietto’s project, you can find the NAIMOR website here.

* Changed ‘measure’ to ‘measures’ and ‘form’ to ‘from’ May 6, 2014.

Oil-absorbing (nanotechnology-enabled) robots at Venice Biennale?

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) researchers are going to be presenting nano-enabled oil-absorbing robots, Seaswarm, at the Venice Biennale , (from the news item on Nanowerk),

Using a cutting edge nanotechnology, researchers at MIT have created a robotic prototype that could autonomously navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site.

The system, called Seaswarm, is a fleet of vehicles that may make cleaning up future oil spills both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. MIT’s Senseable City Lab will unveil the first Seaswarm prototype at the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion on Saturday, August 28. The Venice Biennale is an international art, music and architecture festival whose current theme addresses how nanotechnology will change the way we live in 2050.

I did look at the Biennale website for more information about the theme and about Seaswarm but details, at least on the English language version of the website, are nonexistent. (Note: The Venice Biennale was launched in 1895 as an art exhibition. Today the Biennale features, cinema, architecture, theatre, and music as well as art.)

You can find out more about Seaswarm at MIT’s senseable city lab here and/or you can watch this animation,

The animation specifically mentions BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and compares the skimmers used to remove oil from the ocean with Seaswarm skimmers outfitted with  nanowire meshes,

The Seaswarm robot uses a conveyor belt covered with a thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil. The fabric, developed by MIT Visiting Associate Professor Francesco Stellacci, and previously featured in a paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. By heating up the material, the oil can be removed and burnt locally and the nanofabric can be reused.

“We envisioned something that would move as a ‘rolling carpet’ along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill,” said Senseable City Lab Associate Director Assaf Biderman. “This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle: a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves.”

The Seaswarm robot, which is 16 feet long and seven feet wide, uses two square meters of solar panels for self-propulsion. With just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, it could potentially clean continuously for weeks.

I’d love to see the prototype in operation not to mention getting a chance to attend La Biennale.

Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, science, and not taking sides

Linda Hooper-Bui is a professor in Louisiana who studies insects.She’s also one of the scientists who’s been denied access to freely available (usually) areas in the Gulf of Mexico wetlands. She and her students want to gather data for examination about the impact that the oil spill has had on the insect populations. BP Oil and the US federal government are going court over the oil spill and both sides want scientific evidence to buttress their respective cases. Scientists wanting access to areas controlled by either of the parties are required to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) by either BP Oil or the Natural Resource Damage Assessment federal agency. The NDA’s extend not just to the publication of data but also to informal sharing.

From the article by Hooper-Bui in The Scientist,

The ants, crickets, flies, bees, dragon flies, and spiders I study are important components of the coastal food web. They function as soil aerators, seed dispersers, pollinators, and food sources in complex ecosystems of the Gulf.

Insects were not a primary concern when oil was gushing into the Gulf, but now they may be the best indicator of stressor effects on the coastal northern Gulf of Mexico. Those stressors include oil, dispersants, and cleanup activities. If insect populations survive, then frogs, fish, and birds will survive. If frogs, fish, and birds are there, the fishermen and the birdwatchers will be there. The Gulf’s coastal communities will survive. But if the bugs suffer, so too will the people of the Gulf Coast.

This is why my continued research is important: to give us an idea of just how badly the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystems has been damaged and what, if anything, we can do to stave off a full-blown ecological collapse. But I am having trouble conducting my research without signing confidentiality agreements or agreeing to other conditions that restrict my ability to tell a robust and truthful scientific story.

I want to collect data to answer scientific questions absent a corporate or governmental agenda. I won’t collect data specifically to support the government’s lawsuit against BP nor will I collect data only to be used in BP’s defense. Whereas I think damage assessment is important, it’s my job to be independent — to tell an accurate, unbiased story. But because I choose not to work for BP’s consultants or NRDA, my job is difficult and access to study sites is limited.

Hooper-Bui goes on to describe a situation where she and her students had to surrender samples to a US Fish and Wildlife officer because their project (on public lands therefore they should have been freely accessible) had not been approved. Do read the article before it disappears behind a paywall but if you prefer. you can listen to a panel discussion with her and colleagues Christopher D’Elia and Cary Nelson on the US National Public Radio (NPR) website, here. One of the people who calls in to the show is another professor, this one from Texas, who has the same problem collecting data. He too refused to sign any NDAs. One group of nonaligned scientists has been able to get access and that’s largely because they acted before the bureaucracy snapped into place. They got permission (without having to sign NDAs) while the federal bureaucracy was still organizing itself in the early days of the spill.

These practices are antithetical to the practice of science. Meanwhile, the contrast between this situation and the move to increase access and make peer review a more open process (in my August 20, 2010 posting) could not be more glaring. Very simply, the institutions want more control while the grassroots science practitioners want a more open environment in which to work.

Hooper-Bui comments on NPR that she views her work as public service. It’s all that and more; it’s global public service.

What happens in the Gulf over the next decades will have a global impact. For example, there’s a huge colony of birds that make their way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec for the summer returning to the Gulf in the winter.  They should start making their way back in the next few months. Who knows what’s going to happen to that colony and the impact this will have on other ecosystems?

We need policies that protect scientists and ensure, as much as possible, that their work be conducted in the public interest.

Examining communication strategies for nanotechnology and for the BP oil spill

This won’t be a very long posting as it’s really a pointer to a couple commentaries by Dietram Scheufele (nanosunscreens) and Matthew Nisbet (BP oil spill).

First up Scheufele ( last mentioned here in a posting about Google influencing online searches for information nanotechnology; note: you can find out more about that in an interview with Elizabeth Baum) highlights in his June 17, 2010 posting, a public education/advertising campaign that the US Friends of the Earth (FOE) organization recently kicked off,

The timing is impeccable, of course, keeping alive a news wave started last week by a push from NY Senator Sen. Chuck Schumer to have the Food and Drug Administration looking into a possible link between retinyl palmitate in sun screens and skin cancer in humans.

It’s an interesting observation which suggests a great deal of thought goes into developing campaigns by nongovernmental organizations (aka civil society groups) and by extension other interests such as companies, politicians, governments, etc. You can follow links and read more at Dietram Scheufele’s nanopublic blog.

Here’s another observation about strategy this time by Matthew Nisbett in a his June 14, 2010 posting where he comments on why he thinks the environmental groups are being relatively muted in their response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and how they have responded,

In my own comments quoted in the article [by Josh Gerstein on Politico], I note that environmental groups appear to have adopted a smart strategy, letting the heavy news attention and general emphasis on public accountability do the communication work for them. If environmental groups were to become more open in their criticism of the Administration or too visible in news coverage, they risk alienating the White House and may be criticized by the media and the public for being politically opportunistic. Below are additional thoughts on the article and recent trends:

* As I emphasized to Gerstein, the sound bite of the crisis so far has been James Carville’s “who’s your daddy” comment, a frame device delivered with deep emotion that instantly conveys the emphasis on public accountability that has come to dominate news narratives.

Links and the full posting  are at Nisbett’s blog, Framing Science.

In coming to conclusions and positions of my own, I find it’s helpful to understand the mechanics (yes, there’s luck but there’s also a lot of planning)  behind the messages I receive.

A few thoughts on business and nanotechnology

In my response to a comment on yesterday’s posting I was not able to address the issue of  business’ role in nanotechnology safety efforts raised by this sentence,

Parents won’t leap for joy over the suggestion that their children must be exposed to these products, lest a company’s opportunity to move forward in marketing these products for profit be stymied.

As I don’t want to be misleading, it should be noted that the commenter is critical of my stance on risk and nanosunscreens and was using this comment to buttress a more comprehensive argument.

Reading the [July 7, 2011 corrected for grammar] comment earlier today was coincidental with my discovery yesterday of an article by a business owner (Scott Rickert, President and Chief Executive Officer of Nanofilm) about the proposed nanomaterials definitions in bills before the US House of Representatives and Senate (previously mentioned on this blog here).  From Taking the NanoPulse — Toxic Substance Meets Poison Thinking; New toxics legislation aims for safe. But is it sound? (Industry Week website) where Rickert discusses the Safe Chemicals bills and nanotechnology,

… for those of us in the nanotechnology field, there’s an additional wrinkle beyond the chemical formula of our products. Both the House and Senate version of the bill now include size, size distribution, shape and surface structure in the definition of a chemical’s “substance characteristic.” That means that over and above concerns about the chemical formula a nanotechnology company may be using, it may become suspect simply because of its nanoscale charactertics.

Am I worried? No. I know the people in this industry and I believe we have a track record that shows our care at policing ourselves. We’re not monsters. We have families, children and grandchildren, too. Make no mistake, we’re concerned about environmental health and safety in our industry. [emphasis mine] We have rules and programs in place. In addition, companies like mine have been working in special new voluntary reporting programs with the EPA. And, heaven knows, our whole industry has been educating scientists, governments, special interest groups and the general public about nanotechnology for a decade or more.

I think both the commenter and Rickert are right in entirely different ways and somewhat wrong in exactly the same way. Rickert goes on,

So what’s keeping me up at night? Not worries about toxicity and nanotechnology. We can handle that. I’m worried about toxicity in the law-making process. One of the Senate authors of the Bill says, “America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken… Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies.”

Is that really where we want to start? Throwing open the door to panic — on both sides? I sat in on a nanotechnology industry conference call recently and the fear of a “witch hunt” was palpable.

If parents are terrified, they’re in the same boat as honest, responsible companies that are making products that improve lives and have long been committed to health and environmental causes. Do you think in this age of BP oil spills and late-night law-firm mesothelioma infomercials that businesses aren’t aware that preventing a problem is better than paying for it later?

To answer Rickert’s question, I think companies are quite aware of the risks and quite willing to pass them on to consumers and citizens in pursuit of an extra dollar.  With that, I’ve agreed with the commenter and now I’m going to agree with Rickert, there are honest responsible companies run by people who care about the environment and health.

Neither the commenter nor Rickert make a distinction I want to introduce about companies/businesses. A vast gulf exists between a small to medium-sized business and a multinational enterprise in terms of revenue and economic impact, perspective on responsibility, connections to their communities, and so on. Someone who’s built up their own business in their community is quite likely to have a different take on acceptable risks than someone who lives a continent away and has no direct ongoing contact with the community in which the business is operating.

Take for example,  Tony Hayward, Group Chief Executive, BP Oil. As I write this, BP Canada (BP Oil’s Canadian subsidiary) has started work on on a well for their coalbed methane project  in an area of British Columbia (Canada) that lies between the internationally famous Banff National Park and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park which provides a corridor for mountain-dwelling wildlife who move between the two parks. From the news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News,

As oil continues to gush from a BP wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico, critics say the company has quietly broken ground on a controversial project in B.C.’s Rocky Mountains.

Opponents of the Mist Mountain project say they were surprised to find that BP Canada, an arm of the BP group of companies, began construction earlier this month on an exploratory well for its coalbed methane project near Fernie, B.C.

But Hejdi Feick, the director of communications for BP Canada, said British Columbians can be reassured that the company is a good corporate citizen.

“We are absolutely committed to doing this right,” she said Tuesday. “We have been very open and accessible over the last three years.”

That is little comfort for [Ryland] Nelson (from the group Wildsight), who said BP had promised to consult with the public every step of the way yet he only learned construction was underway when he went to the site Monday.

Nelson said the contractor on site told him they hope to bring in drilling equipment by the end of the month and start drilling this summer.

“Here they are, they’ve been working for nearly two weeks and nobody knew anything about it,” he said.

Remarkable here is how thoroughly tone deaf the company representative is to the reception this initiative is likely to enjoy. (By the way, I live in British Columbia.)

My point is that you can’t lump all businesses together as being thoroughly unethical in the pursuit of the almighty buck nor can you lump them together as honest, ethical entities being run by people who aren’t “monsters.” (Note: I believe that Rickert was using the word to make a point about business owners being people too. I have ruthlessly extracted that word from its natural placement to suggest that while  Hayward and his ilk may or may not be monsters, the consequences of their actions in the Gulf are monstrous.)

In the discussion about nanotechnology and safety I think we need to consider as many perspectives as possible without condemning everyone who represents business interests or being unduly naïve about competing interests. I do encourage you to read Ricket’s critique of the two Safe Chemicals bills as he brings up issues that would never have occurred to me and, I imagine, others who are not directly involved in the production of nanotechnology-enabled products.

Plug the BP oil spill (Gulf of Mexico) in a 2nd Life simulation

I just got a comment from Fire Centaur (as the person is known in 2nd Life) about a 3D simulation of the BP oil spill.Fire created the simulation as both an educational tool and a means of grappling with the sense of helplessness that a great many of us are feeling as we watch oil pump into the Gulf of Mexico for months now. From Fire’s blog posting in response to a comment that the simulation is in ‘bad taste’,

Hi Trella,

I’m Fire Centaur in SL – I created the Oil Spill simulation on my island English Village.

I hear what you are saying, and value your opinion.

The reason I made the simulation, and the reason why I have been SL from the beginning, is because I see “gaming platforms” as a viable delivery platform for education.

In a way, SL is quite enabling, because it allows ‘us’ to enter a gamers world… – where we are able to create immersive content – and connect – through simulations – with gamers and others who are interested in virtual worlds.

Most of the people I have met in SL, are engaged in higher education. (University professors etc)

I think gaming as a delivery platform for education certainly should never replace real life education – but it certainly has its merits.

After living in Korea for 5 years, seeing how many youth play games, I think there can be something said for using gaming to “enter” a users world…

In some small way, I was hoping that my experience in programming simulations and manipulating LSL code, and in building this simulation, could somehow help to contribute to the cause – and give users something they could engage with, and perhaps even reduce the disassociation attached with just reading the news…

Creating a gaming simulation where users attempt to plug a flowing oil pipe enables highly immersive user engagement (for those who try the simulation) and I’m hoping that it might even cause some people to feel that they too could be a part of a solution…

It’s very easy to feel helpless when these things happen, and since in some cases where we dont see the immediate effects of this tragedy, we can easily feel disassociated from the problem altogether.

By getting people into a game – simulating them being at the bottom of the ocean… repairing a pipe – helps them to be being part of a solution, through engagement.

I am hoping, this might reduce this feeling of helplessness… or at the very least, encourage discussion of the tragedy.

If you try the game, it would take you about 2 minutes to plug the pipe I created that is spewing oil…

That’s two valuable minutes of a users time.

From a webmasters point of view – 2 minutes is quite a lengthy time to immersively capture your audiences attention…

If I can do that – and have them focussed on important issues like the BP Spill… heck – I think thats pretty good!

Thanks for taking the time to check it out.

Anyhow, if anyone else would like to try the simulation, or use it as a space for a discussion, I most certainly welcome you to the environment…

You can gain access and instructions by going here.

I haven’t been to the BP oil spill in 2nd Life yet but I’m looking forward to it. Thank you, Fire Centaur.

Getting better informed about nanodispersants and oil spills

I was saddened and discouraged to read that the ‘top kill’ solution for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t work. I can only imagine how people who are directly affected feel. As this crisis continues, I begin to  better appreciate how interconnected we are on this planet.

Specifically, I’ve come across a local (Vancouver, Canada) debate about oil spills and liability. One of the daily newspapers and a news station recently featured information about a local marine oil spill (from a Chevron refinery) which occasioned debate on a Vancouver civic blog about environmentalists, hyprocrisy, the desire for oil, and reflections on crime, punishment, and what’s occurring in the Gulf of Mexico.

CityCaucus.com has a May 29, 2010 posting (Oil refinery irony) which makes some harsh points about environmentalists going to check the local oil spill via a motorboat. The points are true and the option suggested, canoeing to the site, is difficult for me to grasp as being a serious option which drove home for me not just the dependency on oil but also the unconscious reliance on how and the speed at which news is conveyed.

The piece managed to attract a very focused and  succinct summary about BP’s culpability. First, the quote which mobilized the comment (from the May 29, 2010 posting),

As Vancouver technologist and Twitter fiend Tim Bray said yesterday:

Unlike apparently everyone, I’m not pissed at BP. You gonna live on fossil fuel, shit gonna happen. BP drew the short straw.

It’s certainly concise (how could it be otherwise with a 140 character limit?) and, I think, true in its way. We do live on fossil fuel and as the sources diminish we will be extracting that fuel in more complex and dangerous ways. Still, Sean Bickerton pointed out in his comment (May 29, 2010 posting on the CityCaucus blog) a few issues with BP,

While our need for oil drives exploration in more and more technologically challenging environments, it’s not demand that produced the worst environmental disaster in American history – that would be the negligence, fraud, incompetence, and greed of a reckless BP that:

* bypassed even minimal safety precautions

* used the cheapest casing and sealants known to have exploded on other rigs

* ignored clear safety concerns of their own crews and engineers

* ignored the fact their own well was out of control, insisting underlings cover up the explosive gas coming up the pipe

* refused to undertake adequate testing of the blowout valve despite known problems

* had no backup plan or equipment in place despite mounting dangers on the rig.

We have every right to insist that risky exploration and drilling be done to the highest environmental and safety standards, and that companies put their worker’s safety and the environment before gouging another penny of profit out of the most lucrative business in the world.

Whether a sin of commission or omission, If terrorists had done what BP has done, killing eleven workers on that rig and fouling the entire Gulf Coast and much of the Gulf of Mexico, the full might of the international community would have been mobilized to attack the entity responsible and all of their assets would have been seized.

Where crimes have been committed, those responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the list other than to observe that with a catastrophe of this size, more than one thing went wrong and this list covers major points.

Meanwhile, the debate over the attempts to mitigate the damage have fostered a controversy over a solution that claimed to be nanotechnology-enabled. Andrew Shneider at AOL News has written a piece, which has some good points and some misinformation all pulled together into a toxic brew.

The company, Green Earth Technologies,  has applied to use what they claim is a nano-enabled dispersant for the oil spill in the Gulf. There has been strong opposition to this as noted in Schneider’s article. At this point, Schneider finds an expert who makes comments that suggest he is not familiar with any of the nanotechnology research he appears to be referring to.

Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science provides an analysis of the company’s (Green Earth Technologies) product and notes that the company did not do itself any favours by being overoptimistic in its product safety claims.  Andrew excerpts the company’s website product description in his posting,

G-MARINE Fuel Spill Clean-UP! is a unique blend of plant derived, water based and ultimate biodegradable ingredients specifically formulated to quickly emulsify and encapsulate fuel and oil spills. These plant derived ingredients are processed to form a colloidal micelle whose small particle size (1-4 nanometers) enables it to penetrate and breakdown long chain hydrocarbons bonds in oils and grease and holds them in a colloidal suspension when mixed with water. Once oil has been suspended in a nano-colloidal suspension, there is no reverse emulsion; the oil becomes water soluble allowing it to be consumed by resident bacteria in the water. This dispersant formula is protected by trade secrets pursuant to Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) Standard CFR-1910 1200. The ingredient list has been reviewed by the US EPA and contains no ingredients considered hazardous by OSHA.

Here’s where the company went overboard,

Does G-MARINE OSC-1809 Oil & Fuel Spill Clean-UP! have any adverse affects on humans / animals or the environment?

None whatsoever. G-MARINE OSC-1809 Oil & Fuel Spill Clean-UP! has shown absolutely no adverse effect on humans or animals. [emphasis mine]

Yes and a peanut can cause an adverse effect if you’re allergic.

Do read Andrew’s textual analysis of how the NGO’s got it confused, a description of how the term nanoparticle is being used as a synonym for carbon nanotube and, for fun, read the comments. Schneider’s expert showed up to question Andrew’s credibility as an expert.

I also found this post by Tim Harper, principal of Cientifica and author of the TNT Log. From a May 29, 2010 post he made prior to attending the latest World Economic Forum meeting,

I often despair when policy on environment and health issues seems to be made without any recourse to science, whether on MMR vaccines, GMO’s or the Louisiana clean up.

The real question I’ll be looking at in Doha [where the World Economic Forum is being held] is [how] much longer are we going to have to wade through obfuscation from all sides while the planet dies?

I quite agree with the sentiment. We don’t have time and I am tired of obfuscation from all sides.

Pour revenir à mes moutons (meaning: getting back to where I started, the literal meaning: returning to my sheep), I think the impact of this oil spill will be felt in ways that we cannot yet imagine and those ways will be profound and global.

Oil spills, environmental remediation, and nanotechnology

Oil spills have been on my mind lately as I’ve caught some of the overage about the BP (British Petroleum) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One  leak (the smallest) has been fixed according to a news item on physorg.com

Days of work off the coast of Louisiana with underwater submarines nearly a mile below the surface finally bore fruit as a valve was secured over the smallest of the three leaks and the flow shut off.

The feat does not alter the overall amount of crude spilling into the sea and threatening the fragile US Gulf coast, but is significant nonetheless as the focus can now narrow on just two remaining leaks.

“Working with two leaks is going to be a lot easier than working with three leaks. Progress is being made,” US Coast Guard Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell told AFP.

More than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is being realized as a massive slick looms off the US Gulf coast, imperilling the livelihoods of shoreline communities.

The news item goes on to detail how much crude oil is still being lost, the oil slick’s progress, the probable impact on the shoreline and animals, and the other efforts being made to ameliorate the situation.

With all the talk there is about nanotechnology’s potential for helping us to clean up these messes, there’s been no mention of it in the current  efforts as Dexter Johnson over at the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)  Nanoclast blog pointed out the other day. From Dexter’s posting which features both a  discussion about patents for nanotechnology-enabled clean up products and an interview with Tim Harper,

So to get a sense of where we really are I wanted to get the perspective of my colleague, Tim Harper (principal of Cientifica), who in addition to being a noted expert on the commercialization of nanotechnologies also has devoted his attention to the use of nanotechnologies in cleantech including its remediation capabilities, leading him to his presentation this week in Australia at the conference Cleantech Science and Solutions: mainstream and at the edge.

“If you are looking for a quick fix from nanotechnology, forget it,” says Harper. “Nanotech is already making an impact in reducing energy, and therefore oil use, it is also being used to create stronger lighter materials that can be used for pipelines, and enabling better sensors for early warning of damage, but in terms of cleaning up the mess, the contribution is minor at best.”

Clearly not the hopeful words that many would have hoped for, and the pity is that it might have been different, according to Harper.

“As with all technologies, the applications take a while to develop,” he says. “If someone had come up with some funding 10 years ago for this specific application then we may have had better tools to deal with it.”

Dexter’s posting about patents and Harper’s comments reminded me of an article by Mason Inman I saw two years ago on the New Scientist website titled, Nanotech ’tissue’ loves oil spills, hates water. From the article,

A material with remarkable oil-absorbing properties has been developed by US researchers. It could help develop high-tech “towels” able to soak up oil spills at sea faster, protecting wildlife and human health.

Almost 200,000 tonnes of oil have been spilled at sea in accidents since the start of the decade, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. [This article was posted May 30, 2008]

Clean-up methods have improved in recent years, but separating oil from thousands of gallons of water is still difficult and perhaps the biggest barrier to faster clean ups.

The new water-repellent material is based on manganese oxide nanowires and could provide a blueprint for a new generation of oil-spill cleaners. It is able to absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil, without sucking up a drop of water.


But [Joerg] Lahann [University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US]  points out that manganese oxide may not be the best material for real-world applications because it could be toxic. He says, though, that the new material “clearly provides a blueprint that can guide the design of future nanomaterials for environmental applications.”

I wonder if they’ve done any research to determine if manganese oxide in the shape and size required to create this nanotech ’tissue’ is toxic. Intriguingly, there was a recent news item on Nanowerk about toxicology research in a marine environment being undertaken.

Led by Dr. Emilien Pelletier, the Institut des Sciences de la Mer de Rimouski at the Université du Québec à Rimouski has obtained an LVEM5 benchtop electron microscope to help them study the short-term and long-term effects of nano-materials on the marine environment.

Dr. Pelletier is the Canada Research Chair in Marine Ecotoxicology. The overall objective of the chair is to understand the impact of natural and anthropogenic stresses on the short-and long-term high-latitude coastal ecosystems to contribute to the conservation, protection and sustainable development of cold coastal marine resources.

Since the news release was written by the company supplying the microscope there is no word as to exactly what Emilien’s team will be researching and how the work might have an impact on other members of the community such as the researchers with the ‘oil-hungry nanotech tissue’ made of nanoscale manganese oxide.

There is as always a political element to all of this discussion about what we could or couldn’t do with nanotechnology-enabled means to clean up oil spills and/or reduce/eliminate our dependence on oil. This discussion is not new as Dr. J. Storrs Hall implies during a presentation being reported in a recent (May 4, 2010) Foresight Institute blog entry by Dave Cronz, PhD. From the posting,

Here I offer my reflections on some of the highlights of the presentation by Dr. J. Storrs Hall of the Foresight Institute, entitled “Feynman’s Pathway to Nanomanufacturing,” and the panel discussion that followed, “How Do We Get There from Here?” Discussions such as these are crucial opportunities to reflect on – and potentially shape – emerging technologies whose destinies are often left to be determined by “market forces.”

Dr. Hall began with an intriguing argument: Feynman’s top-down approach to reaching the nano scale in manufacturing, achieved through a step-down method of replicating and miniaturizing an entire, fully-equipped machine shop in 1:4 scale over and over would yield countless benefits to science, engineering, and manufacturing at each step. These microscopic, tele-manipulated master-slave “Waldos” (named after Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo F. Jones”) would get nanotechnology back on track by focusing on machines and manufacturing, since most of our current emphasis is on science at the nano scale. Feynman’s top-down approach to nanoscale manufacturing is missing from the Foresight Institute’s roadmap, according to Hall, “for political reasons.” This raises a fundamental point: science and technology cannot develop independent of the political and social spheres, which pose as many challenges as the technology. Many would argue that social and technological processes are inseparable and treating them otherwise borders on folly. I commend Dr. Hall for offering his argument. It soon became clear that the panelists who joined him after his presentation disagreed. [bolded emphases mine]

As Dr. Hall aptly noted it’s not dispassionate calculations but “serendipity: the way science always works.”

I’m in agreement with Dr. Hall, the political and social spheres are inseparable from the scientific and technological spheres. As for “emerging technologies whose destinies  are often left to be determined by market forces”, Dexter’s posting ends with this,

But foresight is not the strong suit of businesses built around short-term profit motives as evidenced by them [BP] not even investing in the remote systems that would have turned the oil well off and possibly avoided the entire problem.

I strongly recommend reading Dexter’s posting to get the nuances and to explore his links.

I’m going to finish on a faint note of hope. There is work being done on site remediation and it seems to be successful, i.e., nonpolluting, less disruptive to the environment, and cheaper.  The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a webcast of a presentation titled, Contaminated Site Remediation: Are Nanomaterials the Answer?. You can find my comments about the webcast here (scoll down a bit) and PEN’s Nanoremediation Map which lists projects around the world although most are in the US. It’s incomplete since there is no requirement to report a nanoremediation site to PEN but it does give you an idea of what’s going on. Canada has two sites on the map.