oil spill

Detection of Oil Spills

Petroleum - English
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 Oil Spills

Special instruments are sometimes required to detect an oil spill, especially if the slick is very thin or not clearly visible. For example, if a spill occurs at night, in ice, or among weeds, the oil slick must be detected and tracked using instruments onboard aircraft, satellites, or spacecraft. This technology is known as remote sensing.
There are also surface technologies available to detect and track oil slicks. In addition, samples of the oil must often be obtained and analyzed to determine the oil’s properties, its degree of weathering, its source, or its potential impact on the environment. This analysis, as well as tracking and remote sensing technologies, are
discussed in this article.

In the past, when an oil spill occurred, the location and extent of the spill, the potential behaviour of the oil, and its impact on the environment were often not immediately known. Today, technology is available to provide much of this information.
Laboratory analysis can provide information to help identify an oil if its source is unknown and a sample is available. With a sample of the source oil, the degree of weathering and the amount of evaporation or biodegradation can be determined for the spilled oil. Through laboratory analysis, the more-toxic compounds in the oil can be measured and the relative toxicity of the oil at various stages of the spill can be determined. This is valuable information to have as the spill progresses.

Taking a sample of oil and then transporting it to a laboratory for subsequent analysis is common practice. While there are many procedures for taking oil samples, it is always important to ensure that the oil is not tainted from contact with other materials and that the sample bottles are pre-cleaned with solvents, such as hexane,
that are suitable for the oil.
The simplest and most common form of analysis is to measure how much oil is in a water, soil, or sediment sample. Such analysis results in a value known as total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH). The TPH measurement can be obtained in many ways, including extracting the soil, or evaporating a solvent such as hexane and measuring the weight of the residue that is presumed to be oil.
The oil can also be extracted from water using an oil-absorbing and waterrepelling solid. The oil is then analyzed from this substrate by a variety of means, including measuring the amount of light absorbed in certain selected narrow bands.
Still another method is to use enzymes that are selectively affected by some of the oil’s components. A test kit that uses colour to indicate the effect of the oil on the enzymes is available.
A more sophisticated form of analysis is to use a gas chromatograph (GC). A small sample of the oil extract, often in hexane, and a carrier gas, usually helium, are passed through a small glass capillary. The glass column is coated with absorbing materials and, as the various components of the oil have varying rates of adhesion, the oil separates as these components are absorbed at different rates onto the column walls. The gases then pass through a sensitive detector. The system is calibrated by passing known amounts of standard materials through the unit. The amount of many individual components in the oil is thereby measured. The components that pass through the detector can also be totalled and a TPH value determined. While it is highly accurate, this value does not include resins, asphaltenes, and some other components of the oil with higher molecular weight that do not pass through the

One type of detector used on a gas chromatogram is a mass spectrometer (MS). The method is usually called GC-MS and can be used to quantify and identify many components in oil. The mass spectrometer provides information about the structure of the substance so that each peak in the chromatogram can be more positively identified. This information can then be used to predict how long the oil has been in the environment and what percentage of it has evaporated or biodegraded. This is possible because some of the components in oils, particularly crude oils, are very
resistant to biodegradation, while others are resistant to evaporation. This difference in the distribution of components then allows the degree of weathering of the oil to be measured. The same technique can be used to “fingerprint” an oil and positively identify its source. Certain compounds are consistently distributed in oil, regardless
of weathering, and these are used to identify the specific type of oil.

Analysis performed in the field is faster and more economical than analysis done in a laboratory. As analytical techniques are constantly improving and lighter and more portable equipment is being developed, more analytical work can be carried out directly in the field. Test methods are now available for measuring physical properties of oil such as viscosity, density, and even flash point in the field. Test kits have also been developed that can measure total petroleum hydrocarbons directly in the field. While these test kits are less accurate than laboratory methods, they are a rapid screening tool that minimizes laboratory analysis and may provide adequate data for making response decisions.
Oil Spill Detection and Tracking Buoys and Systems
As oil spills frequently occur at moorings and docks, buoys and fixed-point monitoring systems have been developed to ensure rapid response at these sites.
These systems detect the oil on water and transmit a radio signal to an oil spill response agency.

is one method used to detect oil in these systems. An ultraviolet light is focused on the water surface and any oil that is present fluoresces, or absorbs the ultraviolet light and re-emits it as visible light. This fluorescing phenomenon is relatively unique to oil and provides a positive detection mechanism.

In another detection method, an oil sorbent is used that changes in physical properties when it absorbs oil and thus triggers a device. An example of this would be a sorbent that loses it strength when oil is absorbed. The sorbent is placed in contact with a spring and a switch, which is activated when oil enters the sorbent.
This type of device is not effective for fast response. Other detection units are triggered by the differential light reflection or absorption properties of oil.As these systems monitor a specific small area of water, they must be located where a spill would be likely to enter that area. It is difficult to determine this entry point in most situations. Furthermore, technologies available today are not sensitive to quantities of oil released and thus may be triggered by very small amounts of oil. For these reasons, these systems are not used extensively.

As an oil spill moves with the winds and surface currents, the slick or portions of it may move and responders may not always know its position, especially in darkness or fog. Buoys have been developed that move on the water in a manner similar to oil. These buoys transmit a position signal directly to receivers located on aircraft or ships or to a satellite that corresponds to the position of the oil slick.
Some of these buoys receive Global Positioning System (GPS) data from satellites and transmit this with the signal. The position of the spill can then be determined using a remote receiver. For this type of device to be effective, however, the buoy must respond to both the wind and surface currents in the same way as the oil would.
Although this precision in response is difficult to achieve, devices are available that can successfully track a range of crude oils and Bunker C.

Visual Surveillance
Oil spills are often located and surveyed from helicopters or aircraft using only human vision. There are some conditions, however, such as fog and darkness, in which oil on the surface cannot be seen. Very thin oil sheens are also difficult to detect as is oil viewed from an oblique angle (less than 45°) especially in misty or other conditions that limit vision. Oil can also be difficult to see in high seas and among debris or weeds and it can blend into dark backgrounds, such as water, soil,
or shorelines. Oil spill

In addition, many naturally occurring substances or phenomena can be mistaken for oil. These include weeds and sunken kelp beds, whale and fish sperm, biogenic or natural oils such as from plants, glacial flour (finely ground mineral material, usually from glaciers), sea spume (organic material), wave shadows, sun glint and wind sheens on water, and oceanic and riverine fronts where two different bodies of water meet, such as a river entering another body of water.
A very thin oil sheen as it appears on water is shown in the above Figure. This figure also shows the thickness and amount of oil that could be present under such circumstances.
Remote sensing of oil involves the use of sensors other than human vision to detect or map oil spills. As already noted, oil often cannot be detected in certain conditions. Remote sensing provides a timely means to map out the locations and approximate concentrations of very large spills in many conditions. Remote sensing is usually carried out with instruments onboard aircraft or by satellite. While many sensors have been developed for a variety of environmental applications, only a few are useful for oil spill work. Remote sensing of oil on land is particularly limited and only one or two sensors are useful.

Visual and Ultraviolet Sensors
Many devices employing the visible spectrum, including the conventional video camera, are available at a reasonable cost. As these devices are subject to the same interferences as visual surveillance, they are used primarily to document the spill or to provide a frame of reference for other sensors. A sub-set of sensors operating in the ultraviolet spectrum may be useful for mapping out a very thin sheen.

Infrared Sensors
Thick oil on water absorbs infrared radiation from the sun and thus appears in infrared data as hot on a cold ocean surface. Unfortunately, many other false targets such as weeds, biogenic oils, debris, and oceanic and riverine fronts can interfere with oil detection. The advantage of infrared sensors over visual sensors is that they give information about relative thickness since only thicker slicks, probably greater than 100 μ m, show up in the infrared.
Infrared images are sometimes combined with ultraviolet images, which show the thin oil sheens, to yield a relative thickness map of an oil spill. This is referred to as an IR/UV overlay map. Infrared imagery also has some use at night since the oil appears “colder” than the surrounding sea. The oil is not detected at night in the infrared as it is during the day.
Infrared sensors are relatively inexpensive and widely used for supporting cleanup operations and directing cleanup crews to thicker portions of an oil spill.
They are also often used on cleanup vessels. The oblique view from a ship’s mast is often sufficient to provide useful information on where to steer the vessel for best oil recovery over a short range.

Laser Fluorosensors
Oils that contain aromatic compounds will absorb ultraviolet light and give off visible light in response. Since very few other compounds respond in this way, this can be used as a positive method of detecting oil at sea or on land. Laser fluorosensors use a laser in the ultraviolet spectrum to trigger this fluorescing phenomenon and a sensitive light-detection system to provide an oil-specific detection tool. There is also some information in the visible light return that can be used to determine whether the oil is a light or heavy oil or a lubricating oil. Laser fluorosensors are the most powerful remote sensing tools available because they are subject to very few interferences. Laser fluorosensors work equally well on water and on land and are the only reliable means of detecting oil in certain ice and snow situations. Disadvantages include the high cost of these sensors and their large size and weight.
Passive Microwave Sensors The passive microwave sensor detects natural background microwave radiation.
Oil slicks on water absorb some of this signal in proportion to their thickness. While this cannot be used to measure thickness absolutely, it can yield a measure of relative thickness. The advantage of this sensor is that it can detect oil through fog and in darkness. The disadvantages are the poor spatial resolution and relatively
high cost.

Thickness Sensors
Some types of sensors can be used to measure the thickness of an oil slick. For example, the passive microwave sensor can be calibrated to measure the relative thickness of an oil slick. Absolute thickness cannot be measured for the following reasons: many other factors such as atmospheric conditions also change the radiation levels; the signal changes in cyclical fashion with spill thickness; and the signal must be averaged over a relatively wide area and the slick can change throughout this area.
The infrared sensor also measures only relative thickness. Thick oil appears hotter than the surrounding water during daytime. While the degree of brightness of the infrared signal changes little with thickness, some systems have been adjusted to yield two levels of thickness. A third thickness level on the thinner outer edges of fresh slicks shows up “colder” in the infrared as a result of light interference.
Sensors using lasers to send sound waves through oil can measure absolute oil thickness. The time it takes the sound waves to travel through the oil changes little with the type of oil and thus the measurement of this travel time yields a reliable measurement of the oil’s thickness. This type of sensor is large and heavy and is still considered experimental.
As oil on the sea calms smaller waves (on the order of a few centimetres in length), radar can detect oil on the sea as a calm area. The technique is highly prone to false targets, however, and is limited to a narrow range of wind speeds (approximately 2 to 6 m/s). At winds below this, there are not enough small waves to yield a difference between the oiled area and the sea. At higher winds, the waves can propagate through the oil and the radar may not be able to “see” into the troughs between the waves. Radar is not useful near coastlines or between head lands because the wind “shadows” look like oil. There are also many natural calms on the oceans that can resemble oil. Despite its large size and expense, radar equipment is particularly well suited for searches of large areas and for work at night or in foggy or other bad weather conditions

While many satellites provide images in the visible spectrum, oil cannot be seen in these images unless the spill is very large or rare sea conditions are prevalent that provide a contrast to the oil. Oil has no spectral characteristics that allow it to be enhanced from the background.
Several radar satellites are now available that operate in the same manner as airborne radar and share their many limitations. Despite these limitations, radar imagery from satellite is particularly useful for mapping large oil spills. Arrangements to provide the data within a few hours are possible, making this a useful option.