Misconfiguration as a boon for the environment | Polarjournal
It looks like cotton wool, is feather-light and cleans waters effectively and environmentally friendly from oil spills – the oil binder PURE. Photo: DEUREX AG

Major oil disasters such as the one in Norilsk at the end of May this year or in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 fortunately do not occur often, but still too often and then they are devastating for nature. As long as oil is extracted, at sea or on land, there is a risk of environmental pollution by leaks, by an accident, by a disaster. And we must be prepared for this in order to protect nature and all its creatures from the worst. A small company from Elsteraue in Saxony-Anhalt would have the solution ready.

The latest severe environmental disaster in the Arctic, in which some 21,000 tonnes of diesel leaked from the tank of a combined heat and power plant in the Siberian city of Norilsk on May 29, 2020, is not due to technical or (direct) human error, but is due to the changed climatic conditions. With ever-increasing heat waves and temperature records, it is only a matter of time before the thawing permafrost gives way elsewhere in the Arctic tundra and triggers the next similar disaster.

Then, hopefully, comprehensive emergency preparations will have been made, such as providing sufficient material to contain and clean up oil and chemical spills. And if the worst comes to the worst again, a large-scale spread like the one that has just happened must be prevented under all circumstances. The fragile flora and fauna of the tundra will be damaged for decades with every accident, as the ecosystem can only recover very slowly due to the harsh conditions with a very short – albeit longer – growing season in summer.

A combination of containment and cleaning measures is therefore essential. After setting up oil barriers on water bodies and pumping out the water-oil mixture, a “fine cleaning” of river banks and water bodies is of immense importance for the sensitive animals and plants. Even small amounts of oil or oil products can be lethal to aquatic and soil organisms and disturb or undermine the ecological balance over many years.

“Magic Cotton” for damage control and repair

The salvation for ecosystems potentially endangered by oil pollution could be the accidental invention of the patented cotton wool-like oil binder PURE from the German company DEUREX. Effectively and, above all, in an environmentally friendly way, it removes residues of oil and chemicals as well as medium-sized pollution from water bodies, shore zones and soils. The advantages of the material are obvious:

  • it binds pollution in fresh and salt water without absorbing water
  • it can adsorb up to ten times its own weight in a short time
  • it is very environmentally friendly as it leaves no residue in the water and can even be reused

In particular, environmental safety is an important factor when used in fragile habitats, otherwise it would be replacing one evil by another, such as with liquid fat solvents or powdered oil binders that are difficult to collect.

DEUREX AG won the European Inventor Award in 2017 for its novel cotton wool-like oil binder. Video: European Patent Office

In one case, where transmission oil leaked at a transformer station, it was even possible to clean the contaminated soil by placing PURE at a depth of one metre under the contaminated section and removing it after about a year. Rain had washed the oil through the soil, which then was caught by the PURE layer.
There are many other examples where PURE is already successfully in use and preventing or removing (environmental) pollution: at wind turbines, in marinas, in ship’s engine rooms, during floods, accidents, in the oil fields of Nigeria, etc.

It is therefore not surprising that this invention, which is based on an erroneous setting of the production machine, won the European Inventor Award in 2017.

However, a serious problem remains, as Roland Micklich, Member of the Executive Board at DEUREX AG, describes:

“It happens too rarely that PURE is in the right place at the right time. Hardly any company wants to keep PURE available for safety reasons and in the event of an acute oil disaster, they do not research new products but fall back on known oil binders.”

Those responsible are therefore shying away from the costs of preventive measures, which are, however, lower overall than for conventional binders, of which much larger quantities are required. Even though DEUREX AG’s warehouses are well stocked and PURE can be quickly reproduced, an ad hoc delivery is only feasible in rare cases and for minor contamination. Several tons of material, which would be necessary for an oil spill of the size of Norilsk, cannot be transported to the accident site within a very short time.

Roland Micklich has the solution for this: a mobile production plant for PURE, which can be set up at the appropriate locations, even on ships. But this would require the support of an investor.

Hard to reach in an emergency situation

For the oil industry in the Arctic, a local production facility would be the ideal solution to be prepared for disasters. After all, the biggest problem is the difficult accessibility of the remote plants and potential accident sites, which makes it virtually impossible to intervene quickly in an emergency with outside help. Norilsk, for example, is located in the middle of the tundra about 300 kilometers north of the northern Arctic Circle and 80 kilometers east of the Yenisei River. During the summer months, it can only be reached by air because the seasonally thawed permafrost soil hardly permits road construction. This means that large quantities of material and heavy technical equipment can only be brought into the region over land during the cold season when the ground is frozen solid and passable. The same applies to other industrial areas in the Arctic, including Alaska and Canada. The large number of oil production facilities in the Arctic alone speaks to the high risk potential and technical precautions are urgently required.

By the end of the century, the permafrost is expected to retreat so far north that many extraction facilities, production plants and pipelines will literally lose ground and the risk of oil spills will increase massively. Graphic: Le Monde diplomatique

The fragile Arctic fauna and flora not only urgently needs a lobby – in view of the rapidly advancing development of stored energy resources, this unique habitat urgently needs technical prevention and environmentally friendly intervention in the event of a disaster. It is in all our interests to hope that an invention as great as PURE will be at hand in the future wherever oil (or its products) is extracted, transported, processed, stored and used to protect the ecosystems on which all of humanity depends from further disasters.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

INFO-BOX PURE

Properties:

  • high adsorption capacity
  • contaminants are adsorbed within a few minutes
  • large surface area of up to 3 m2/g
  • does not trigger chemical reactions with other products
  • electric non-conductor

Suitability:

  • binds pollution at the water surface and on the ground
  • for calm water surfaces and rough waters

ecological advantages:

  • water-insoluble
  • does not absorb water
  • long-term adsorbent
  • floats even when fully soaked
  • weatherproof
  • easily separable from water
  • permanent storage stability
  • no hazardous material
  • reusable
  • oil/oil product can be separated from PURE and reused or disposed of

Disposal:

  • thermal recycling of the oil-PURE mixture or the individual, separated components

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