Cheap, efficient way to clean up oil slicks in sea

One of the most successful and innovative research projects in the European Union’s «Life» program on the environment – which deals both economically and effectively with oil slicks at sea – is being ignored by the Greek state. CleanMag, a system which involves the collection of oil slicks using magnetism, was created by a research group at the Technical Institute (TEI) of Piraeus, headed by Professor Giorgos Nikolaidis. Not only has the program itself been ignored, but the 18.5-meter ship specially built to carry out the work has remained docked. The Aegean is crossed every day by many tankers, resulting in a high risk of oil slicks. It’s assumed the state would jump on a Greek invention dealing with the problem, but that hasn’t happened. The CleanMag project involves the deployment of a magnetic porous material that absorbs oil; this material is less dense than water so it floats and spreads out over the slick in the form of granules, which immediately absorb the oil and are then drawn up from the surface by magnets. The idea for CleanMag began in the early 1990s when Nikolaidis – a graduate of Ioannina University’s physics department who also studied in the US and has done research in Sweden – went to work at the Democritus Nuclear Research Center. «I began to be concerned about oil slicks when I saw the enormous destruction wrought by the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska. I thought how easy it would be to collect the oil if it were magnetic and could be drawn up,» Nikolaidis told Kathimerini. However, petroleum is not magnetic. «I thought it might be possible to ‘trap’ it in another material that was magnetic,» he said. Nikolaidis and his associates came up with the idea of a spongy, porous magnetic material which could absorb the oil and then be collected. It was not easy. «First of all, the light polymer and the heavy magnetic metal had to be merged as a material that would float,» Nikolaidis said. «That is why we chose a spongy material with an interior beehive cluster formation that would fill with air, keeping the material afloat. Then the material would have to absorb oil but not water otherwise it would be pointless.» The team succeeded in creating such a material, which was patented in 1996 in Greece and in 1997 in the rest of the world. By that time, Nikolaidis was teaching at the Piraeus TEI. His presentations of the method at conferences attracted the attention of the scientific community. In 1997, the BBC sent a crew to film CleanMag in action and screened the short film. In January 1999, CleanMag was included in the European Union’s Life program on behalf of the Piraeus TEI and in cooperation with private firms. With 2 million euros in funds from the EU, 4 tons of the material were manufactured and a 4-ton ship, the CleanMag/Nancy was launched. CleanMag’s technology was successfully tested in Southhampton in November 1999 at the Oil Spill Response Ltd (OSRL) simulator tank. According to OSRL measurements, the remaining water was 20-30 times cleaner than the limits provided for in the international MARPOL treaty. The biggest test came in May 2003 at Aspropyrgos, using the Nancy, where the results were even more impressive. The Hellenic Maritime Research Center confirmed that the pollution load remaining in the sea after CleanMag’s efforts was 1,500 times lower than the MARPOL limit. Recognition has come from the Life program, ranking CleanMag among its 50 most successful programs in its 12 years. Awards also came from the Embeirikos Institute’s physics department (2001) and the Industrial Property Organization (2002). Interest in CleanMag is high due to the difficulty of dealing with oil slicks. The prevailing methods are very expensive and of doubtful effectiveness and always leave behind some oil, to which chemical solvents are added. These chemicals are extremely toxic, particularly when combined with those in petroleum. The compound of chemical and petroleum sink to the bottom, polluting the seabed. This use of toxic chemicals is the guilty secret of firms involved in cleaning oil slicks. However, CleanMag technology can be spread out from ships or aircraft, reducing the time needed by about a third and creating masses that slow down the spread of the slick. The method can be used in all weather and the resulting matter does not sink. According to the program’s creators, if part of the material reaches the coast it does not cause pollution and can be collected much more easily than other material. Nor is it a hazard to seabirds. It can also be used in less serious oil slicks such as leaks from boats in port. A kilo of the material absorbs another 6-9 kilos of petroleum, depending on the latter’s composition. It is non-toxic and can be recycled; it can also be manufactured from recycled material. CleanMag’s success has not been without obstacles on the home front. A range of interest groups among firms involved in cleaning up oil spills using old technology have opposed the innovation and put pressure on the state. After a long delay and a number of contrived obstacles, Nikolaidis received permission to carry out just one of three scheduled experiments (the authorities cited the risk of pollution). This did not escape the attention of the Life committee, who referred to «unexplained reasons.» The then-merchant marine minister, Giorgos Anomeritis, replied to Nikolaidis’s protests in an arrogantly worded letter referring to «the shipping community’s doubts about the innovation.»