(Reuters) - With oil becoming scarcer and more expensive, the economics of the industry may finally tip in favor of one of the most neglected areas of its business - the technology for cleaning up oil spills.
Despite efforts by scientists to find new and more effective ways to deal with spilt oil, there has been little fundamental change in the technology in the two decades since the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled 750,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska.
But as oil companies push into the environmentally pristine Arctic and deeper waters elsewhere, the pressure on them to demonstrate they can quickly mop up spilt oil will increase.
Big spills like BP PLC's 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico usually trigger a flurry of research, much like the acceleration in weapons technology in wartime, but history shows that industry and government enthusiasm quickly fades.
That loss of momentum could prove expensive. BP has already spent $14 billion on clean-up operations, paid out over $8 billion in claims and is offering a further $7.8 billion in settlement to those affected by the disaster.
ENTER THE SCIENTISTS
A pair of materials researchers from Pennsylvania State University have come up with a novel gel that can absorb 40 times its own weight in oil and forms a soft solid that is strong enough to be scooped up and fed straight into a refinery to recover the oil.
The polymer developed by Mike Chung and Xuepei Yuan only interacted with oil in tests and the swelled gel contained no water, which solves the sticky problem of separating spilt crude from the water it pollutes.
Chung says existing absorbers like straw, and even corn cobs, can only hold about five times their own weight. They also pick up water along with the oil and become waste that has to be buried in special landfills or burned.
The Penn State scientists estimate their polymer gel could be produced on a large scale for $2 a pound, which is enough to recover more than five gallons of spilled oil worth roughly $12 based on a barrel price of $80.
"Had this material been applied to the top of the leaking well head in the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 spill, this... could have effectively transformed the gushing brown oil into a floating gel for easy collection and minimized the pollution consequences," the scientists said in their research paper on the new material.
Rival teams have applied nanotechnology to the problem to produce ultra-lightweight sponges that are oleophilic and hydrophobic - they love oil but repel water.
Daniel Hashim and colleagues at Rice University in Houston have found a way to turn carbon nanotubes - atom-thick sheets of carbon rolled into cylinders - into a sponge material that sucks up oil and can either be squeezed or burned to remove it. In either case the fire-resistant sponge can be re-used.
Hashim told Reuters he has some seed capital from companies and individual investors to develop the technology but there are plenty of hurdles ahead.
Aside from the need to develop a system to deploy the sponge material into an oil spill, "the most significant barrier is equipment cost associated with the scale-up process," he said.
If those hurdles can be overcome, the material could be useful in the Arctic because it retains its sponginess even in extreme cold.
Even celebrities are getting in on the act. In June this year, a U.S. jury ruled in favor of actor Kevin Costner in a lawsuit in which fellow actor Stephen Baldwin accused him of cheating in a multimillion dollar deal to sell oil clean-up devices to BP after the Gulf of Mexico spill.
FLASH IN THE PAN
Some industry insiders are candid about the problem. Writing in the Journal of Petroleum Technology in September, Michael Cortez, BP's manager of oil spill response technology, and his deputy Hunter Rowe warned the research push since the Gulf disaster could be short-lived.
The industry has ramped up funding to improve response technology after other major spills, they said.
"In all instances, however, after a few years of progress, conditions changed in the industry because of oil price volatility and other economic events, and spill response technology development and funding returned to previous levels."
More than twenty years after Exxon Valdez, when BP's Macondo well spewed out an estimated 5 million barrels into the sea, the flotilla attacking the slick was still using floating booms to contain it, specially adapted ships that pick it up by skimming the surface of the water, and controversial chemical dispersants.
There have been advances, not least in the gadgetry for tracking and imaging spills and deploying the ships. The booms are better designed, the skimmers are more efficient and the dispersants less toxic. Some in the industry think this is enough.
"We believe the current technology we have more than meets the need," said Simon Henry, finance director of Royal Dutch Shell, when asked by Reuters whether the company was increasing research spending as it pushes exploration into the Arctic.
Shell, which is Europe's top oil company, was forced to suspend the hunt for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska this year after a giant metal box designed to help contain the oil in the event of a well blowout, was damaged during tests.
"We put most of our effort into ensuring there isn't a spill in the first place," said Henry, adding that a series of barriers, including the blowout preventer that sits on the sea floor at the well-head, are there to guard against "a very, very unlikely event".
SENSE OF URGENCY
Cortez and Rowe from BP argue that exploration in harsher and more remote environments calls for more cutting-edge spill response technology.
"The key to closing technology gaps and enhancing current technologies is to prevent the sense of urgency from being diminished," they said in their journal article.
Scientists are busy coming up with answers but in the end it will be the will of the oil industry and pressure from governments that determines how far and how fast these new technologies are taken up.
As for the novel oil-absorbing gel, Mike Chung is still waiting for the industry to call.
"There is a lot of interest in Petrogel technology for oil spill cleanup and recovery, but not from major oil companies," he told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Andrew Callus; Editing by xxx)