Student Oil-Spill Technology

June 26, 2006

$170K Research Grant Supports Further Development of Ph.D. Student’s Technology; Design is Licensed to Leading Maker of Oil-Spill Recovery Equipment

Deal negotiated by UCSB ensures that Victoria Broje’s designs will capture oil – and profits. A separate grant aids refinement of technology.


SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. – A few months prior to defending her doctoral dissertation at the Bren School, Victoria Broje received two pieces of very good news about the redesigned oil-recovery drum skimmers she has developed during four years of Ph.D. work.

First, she and her advisor, Professor Arturo Keller, received a $170,000 grant from the Coastal Response Research Center (CRRC) at the University of New Hampshire for the proposal titled “Oil Recovery with Novel Skimmer Surfaces Under Cold Climate Conditions,” which she co-wrote with Keller, the project’s supervisor and principal investigator. Then, the University completed negotiations licensing the exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute the equipment to Elastec/American Marine, the largest maker of oil-spill recovery equipment in the United States.

“I always wanted to do applied research aiming at solving real-life issues,” says Broje, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, was trained as a physicist and a structural engineer, and had been granted a provisional, or temporary, patent for the design in 2005. “It is great to see that the largest company is ready to spend the money in legal fees and do everything else it takes to use scientific advances to improve the efficiency of their equipment.” Broje is waiting to see whether a permanent patent will be issued.

“We met Victoria at a conference and were excited by the project,” says Donnie Wilson, CEO of Elastec/American Marine. “It’s unique to have science developing improvements for oil-spill equipment. This is something that will be of general interest to the industry. We hope to be producing drums incorporating her design by the end of 2006.” 

For decades, skimmer technology has remained relatively unchanged. The standard skimmer incorporates a drum that resembles that of a steamroller and has a smooth surface coated with an oil-adhering material, typically polyethylene or polypropylene. The drum turns and a thin film of oil is lifted from the water, scraped from the drum, and deposited into a collector.

But the technology is rife with inefficiencies: It works optimally only with certain thicker kinds of oil and poorly with thin, light crude or petroleum products. A lot of oil falls back into the water, and at higher rotational speeds, adhesion suffers and too much water is picked up with the oil. Ice and slush encountered in cold climates are particularly problematic, and oil sticks to the bristles of brushes that are often used to scrape the oil from the drum, decreasing their efficiency.

Broje and Keller first altered the drum by introducing new surface coatings and then by enhancing the surface with v-shaped grooves running in the direction of rotation. The grooves add surface area and can be cleaned thoroughly with a scraper that fits precisely into them, eliminating the need for brushes. And Because the new drum works with existing technology, fitting onto a standard frame, it is as cost-effective as it is efficient.

In reports from laboratory and field tests presented in a pair of papers that listed Keller as principal investigator and Broje as co-author, the new drum increased oil-recovery efficiency by up to 200 percent, picking up three times the amount of oil removed by a traditional drum. The polymers add another 20 percent gain in efficiency.

“The grooves give the drum four times the surface area,” Broje says. “They allow a meniscus to form and oil to pool and gather in the depth of the grooves. It’s not rocket science, but it works.”

It was her idea to try to patent the product. “Victoria has a very entrepreneurial spirit,” says Keller. “She sets goals and goes forward. She’s tenacious in reaching her objective and good at developing and maintaining her network of contacts and using them to further her work.”

The CRRC funding, which brings to nearly $400,000 the total received to date to develop Broje’s designs, will allow her and Keller to further refine the drum for use specifically in cold climates, replicating work they already did for warm Gulf of Mexico waters and temperate waters along the California coast. The next phase will begin at the Bren School in summer 2006 and continue with two weeks of full-scale testing at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“With oil-spill research, you make incremental gains, but this is going to have a significant effect on oil-recovery efforts,” says Joe Mullen, an oceanographer who manages the Oil Spill Response Research Program (OSRRP) at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service and participated in approving the grant. OSRRP has been involved in funding the early, materials part of Broje and Keller’s work as well as the warm- and temperate-water tests, and is joining the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska, to fund the cold-water phase of the project.

“We’ll be looking mostly at groove design to tailor the dimensions and angles for maximum recovery efficiency in cold Arctic waters,” says Broje. “For viscous oil, we need deeper, wider grooves. We’ll use empirical geometry analysis and conduct a series of lab-scale experiments to determine the exact dimensions. Then we’ll manufacture the skimmers and fly them to New Hampshire, probably in February, for field tests in ice-infested water.”

That will close a circle for Broje, bringing her back to the work that led to her involvement with oil-drum design in the first place.

While on an exchange program in Norway, Broje, who was interested primarily in the design and construction of cold-water offshore oil rigs, took a class from internationally known Norwegian oil-spill expert Per Johan Brandvik, whom Broje describes as “a natural teacher who made oil spills sound like the most interesting thing in the world to study.”

Hooked on the subject, Broje veered from structural engineering and set out to earn her masters degree. Her thesis on oil modeling and oil response in Arctic conditions won First Prize for Best Student Scientific Work in the National Competition of the Russian Federation. While studying, she joined a team of five scientists hired to develop new mechanical oil-spill recovery equipment that could be used in waters where floating slush and broken ice diminish skimmer efficiency. In the course of that work, she noticed that the skimmers weren’t efficient even when ice wasn’t present, and discovered further that no real science-based research and development had been done on the technology since it had originated in the 1970s.

After receiving her master’s, Broje went to work as a project engineer on the giant joint-venture fuel and gas Sakhalin II Project in Russia. Frustrated, however, because “I couldn’t try my ideas there,” she resigned and enrolled at the Bren School to earn her Ph.D.  

“Arturo [Keller] was open-minded enough to take me here,” she says. “Many professors would not take me under their wing because my work isn’t the typical Ph.D. work; it didn’t go deep enough into one subject, but rather uses knowledge produced in different areas to solve an environmental problem. It is truly interdisciplinary work. Arturo realized the potential and accepted me.”

“When I met Victoria, I could see that she had a lot of energy and drive,” says Keller. “I had done a lot of work with oil spills on land, but she had a lot of expertise on spills in water. It was a new area for me, and I thought it would be interesting to see what the challenges were.”

“I’m a physicist,” Broje says, “and in this project we had to use the physics of adhesion science and surface science to analyze the effect of materials. But we also had to incorporate fluid mechanics to analyze oil flow in the grooves or on the solid surface. We needed to know petroleum chemistry to understand oil properties, oceanography to understand all the forces at work on an oil slick at sea, and mechanical engineering to construct the equipment. It was all applied interdisciplinary science, and that’s what the Bren School is all about.”