Oil Spill Recovery Research


Fall 2005

Bren Ph.D. student and TSR&TP Trainee Improves Oil Spill Cleanup by 200%

by Mika Pringle Tolson

Victoria Broje

Trained as a construction engineer in Russia, Victoria Broje has a different way of looking at oil spills. She became intrigued by oil spills and pollution while participating in an exchange program in Norway to study oil platform design in arctic conditions. “I was so fascinated, I changed my major,” says Broje. “I was supposed to construct the platforms, but I got interested in oil spills and how to recover them.” She received a master’s degree in 2001 with honors in engineering and technologies specializing in modeling oil spills and contingency measures in the arctic.

While studying in Norway, Broje noticed the skimmers used to recover spilled oil from the water's surface weren't very efficient. No one could tell her what kind of research and development had been done. Skimmer research was not considered important because oil spills are infrequent. "People tend not to look forward," says Broje. "They don't want to spend money if there's a remote risk of an oil spill." This prompted her to pursue doctoral studies at UC Santa Barbara to improve technologies for oil spill cleanup.

Broje received a TSR&TP fellowship in 2004 to study adhesion of oil to various materials and surface patterns. Current skimmers are made of polypropylene and aluminum because of availability and low cost. "These skimmers were developed more than several decades ago," explains Broje. "I am looking at modern polymers to see if new materials can do a better job." She has found that hydrocarbon based rubbers and a triangular grooved surface pattern pick up more oil than conventional drum skimmers.

Full scale recovery test
Broje performs a full scale oil spill recovery test using new skimmer configuration at the Ohmsett National Test Site. Courtesy photo.

In the past year, Broje's research has been highly successful. UCSB now has a provisional patent on the grooved surface, and several manufacturers are interested in her results. One company indicated interest in using the patent if they could increase efficiency by 20%. "Our results showed we could increase recovery efficiency by 200%, " says Broje. "We can recover 2 to 3 times more oil with the grooved drums than with traditional smooth drums." UCSB is currently negotiating a licensing agreement with a leading manufacturer of oil spill response equipment.

Broje's enthusiasm in this area has spawned increasingly more oil spill research at UC Santa Barbara. Multidisciplinary projects in microbial degradation of oil spills, how information resources on oil spills affect government policies, and the economic effects of oil spills are currently under development at the Bren School.

Broje is thankful for the TSR&TP fellowship. "I'm not sure this would at all have happened without the TSR&TP," she says. "My TSR&TP fellowship allowed me to get proof of concept for my ideas so I could produce the data to get outside grants." Broje and her colleagues received a grant from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to study different skimmer materials for oil spills from the warm waters of Texas to the frigid arctic. Her group was recently awarded a second grant from the MMS to build a skimmer and test it in a real-life environment.

Drums with the triangular grooved surface
New drums with grooved surface installed into a conventional oil skimmer. Courtesy photo.

Although her research has produced applied results, Broje will make contributions to basic science as well. "I believe once we know what determines the attraction between oil and other surfaces, it will have a lot of applications in environmental cleanup and industry, anything where there's a concern about stickiness," says Broje. "I discovered the equipment that works, but now I need to describe how and why it works." She's also writing a guide for oil spill responders to explain how oil changes properties once it spills in the ocean and the most efficient ways to recover it.

Broje is pleased with how things have turned out. "I am very happy that my research is applied. It makes me more interested in doing the work. It's not just a theory. It's a theory that has direct applied benefits for people."