Oil spills are, unfortunately, an unavoidable consequence of pumping, drilling and shipping the commodity around the globe. The most recent large-scale oil spill, the BP Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, continues to have detrimental effects on surrounding ecosystems. Though government regulations and prevention measures have helped reduce the frequency of these spills, the methods that are available for when they do are surprisingly inefficient.
Booms, the primary response tool, have been used for decades with little to no technological advancement. Booms are essentially floating physical barriers comprised of plastic and material that contain the oil so that it can be skimmed; however, the oil they contain is only on the surface of the water and easily escapes the confines of the barrier, allowing contamination to spread and reach coastlines.
The BP Deepwater Horizon disaster was the largest oil spill in American history. The Gulf of Mexico was flooded with nearly 240 million gallons of oil. Of that, only six million gallons were collected, leaving massive amounts of oil in the depths of the ocean to this day. Following this enormous spill, Dr. Arden Warner of Natural Science LLC, Big Rock, Illinois, a seasoned physicist and innovator, was determined to develop a better approach to oil spill recovery. He theorized that adding magnetic particles to the spill would form a bond between the oil and the particles, allowing the oil to be manipulated magnetically and captured more easily than current methods. This would introduce a new paradigm in oil spill technology—“Electromagnetic Remediation Technology.”
To make this technology work, Natural Science designed an electromagnetic boom and ramp, an innovative, electromagnetic-based approach to oil spill remediation. As noted above, the boom-and-ramp system manipulates the oil that has been rendered magnetic by the seeding process. The system then moves, guides and separates the oil from the water, and then separates the oil from the particles for reuse.
The oil collection process begins by seeding spilled oil with environmentally benign, micron-sized magnetite (Fe3O4) particles, creating a colloidal mixture. The process is dominated by a weak molecular force that also allows for the magnetic separation of the particles after the oil and particles are removed from water and other surfaces. The nature of the bond is sufficient to target oil specifically at the micron scale and to only use the water as a transport medium. The process is suitable for large or small spills and works with low- or high-viscosity spills.
For this technology to work, Natural Science needed a way to machine the electromagnetic boom (e-boom). That’s where Accelerated Machine Design & Engineering (AMD&E), Rockford, Illinois came in. Natural Science engaged AMD&E to build the e-boom prototype based on Warner’s concepts. AMD&E handles complex engineering and manufacturing projects from prototype to production. By combining engineering fundamentals with new technologies, AMD&E develops efficient, innovative solutions for industries including energy, aerospace, medical, automotive and defense.
After about a year of planning and engineering, manufacturing and assembly started. “We ran production around the clock to make the different pieces for the prototype,” said Mark Tingley, president of AMD&E. The company relied on two Toyoda CNC machines—the SB316YM bridge machining center and the Stealth 1165 vertical machining center (VMC)—to get the job done. “These machines speak for themselves; the capacity and reliability are unmatched. Our Toyoda machines gave us the confidence that we could deliver on this project for Natural Science,” Tingley said.
The SB316YM is a 3- x 2.3-m, fixed-rail bridge machine designed for heavy cutting applications. Featuring heavy-duty roller guides, a hydraulic counterbalance system on the headstock and a powerful, geared-head spindle—this machine delivers precise and accurate cuts without sacrificing speed. It was the perfect fit to address the backlog AMD&E had accumulated for large machine components. The right-angle head for five-face machining, rigid tapping, tool changer, and part probe were the perfect match for the prototype’s complex parts, such as the electromagnetic coils and coil housings.
For parts that required higher sfm, spindle speeds, tool rigidity, fast tool changes and part probing, the Stealth 1165 VMC was the go-to machine. The Stealth is a 43 x 26" (109 x 66 cm) high-speed VMC that features four Y-axis box guideways, a Meehanite cast iron base and powerful drive motors on the X, Y and Z axes. It’s efficient and accurate—a necessity to ensure the prototype would function as anticipated.
The result was an e-boom and ramp approximately 8' (244-cm) long and 1,500 lb (680 kg). It is modular and designed to expand to meet the varying needs of disaster response.
After years of planning, it was finally time to put the build to the test. In October 2019, AMD&E and Natural Science visited the Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, N.J., with its Oil and Hazardous Materials Simulated Environmental Test Tank (Ohmsett) to deploy the module. The facility is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Ohmsett is the only facility of its kind for full-scale oil spill response equipment testing in which variables such as waves and temperature can be controlled.
An oil spill was simulated in a 2.6 million gal tank of saltwater and the e-boom went to work. The boom design uses electromagnetic coils to guide the magnetized oil to a location to be collected, separated and then reused. The oil was guided to a ramp with a magnetized conveyor belt and transferred into a collection tank. Ten minutes later, the glossy, iridescent sheen of the oil in the tank had disappeared. Tests showed that the collection tank contained only 2.7 percent water, compared to the standard 20 percent, greatly reducing costs of cleanup and water treatment. The Natural Science design not only worked, it far outperformed other technologies on the market. It did this with an environmentally safe method using natural materials. With this process, nothing goes to waste. The oil can still be used, the naturally-occurring magnetic particles reused, and the water can be returned to its original source virtually unharmed.
As long as we continue to consume petroleum products at the current rate, oil spills will be an inevitable part of our future. Our response to these oil spills, however, is fully within our control. Because companies like Natural Science, Accelerated Machine Design & Engineering and Toyoda are committed to clean energy and a sustainable future, we have the technologies necessary to navigate the challenges that lie ahead.
“No matter how disastrous things look, there are solutions. And those solutions can be simple,” said Warner.
For more information from Natural Science LLC, visit www.Naturalscienceusa.com or phone 630-520-2345. For more information from Accelerated Machine Design & Engineering, visit www.Accmach.com or phone 815-316-6381. For more information from JTEKT Toyoda Americas Corp., visit www.toyoda.com or phone 847-253-0340.