Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Robots to Clean Oil Spills

from NY Times...
"Will Robots Clean Up Future Oil Spills?

...One result of the recent undersea oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico is the emergence of a hot market for remedial technologies that go beyond the hapless boom-burn-disperse approach traditionally used to handle such spills.

Ocean Therapy Solutions, the maker of the oil-separating centrifuge system backed by the actor Kevin Costner, saw its devices deployed by BP’s cleanup and containment teams in June. Scientists from Tel Aviv University, meanwhile, have been touting the virtues of oil-hungry bacteria they grow in their lab. This sort of “bioremediation,” according to ScienceDaily, could help “clean the hard-to-reach oil pockets that occur when oil mixes with sand and organic matter on beaches and forms a thin layer on the gulf’s precious waterways.”

But technophiles might be most delighted by a coming innovation from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: swarms of oil-absorbing robots. Carlo Ratti and Assaf Biderman — the director and associate director, respectively, of M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab — plan to unveil a prototype of their SeaSwarm technology at this week’s Venice Biennale festival of architecture, which has nanotechnology as its central theme. An oil-absorbing, nano-fiber belt churns though the unit’s head, where absorbed oil is removed.

The device is essentially a 16-foot-long, 7-foot-wide solar-powered conveyor belt made of a previously developed, oil-slurping “nanowire mesh.” The paperlike material is capable of isolating and absorbing up to 20 times its weight in oil, according to the researchers. Stretched across rollers, the nanofiber belt propels the floating unit through the water while slowly skimming its surface. The belt cycles through the device’s head, where absorbed oil is heated and separated from the mesh, and then rotates back into the water to collect more oil.

Using the principles of swarm robotics, thousands of such devices, interacting and coordinating with one another using global-positioning and wireless technology, could quickly form “teams” and tackle a burgeoning surface spill with crack efficiency. Indeed, the researchers note that one of the problems SeaSwarm aims to overcome is the overwhelming amount of equipment and human coordination needed to combat a spill.

A robotic S.W.A.T. team 5,000 to 10,000 units strong, responding to real-time satellite data about the presence of oil, could lap up a surface spill like BP’s Macondo spill within a month, the researchers said. “If produced in large numbers, we believe that each unit should cost no more than $20,000,” Mr. Ratti said. That means that a leak similar in size to the BP spill could be contained for $100 million to $200 million — assuming the robots worked as advertised. A swarm of 10,000 such units, working together, could tackle a Macondo-sized oil spill in a month, the developers say.

In one design, Mr. Ratti explained by e-mail, the devices burn the oil they collect, so they can continue working uninterrupted. An alternative design, he said, would have individual robots occasionally breaking away to deposit their oil in large, GPS-tagged floating reservoirs. A tanker could come and fetch the oil later..."
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