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From left to right: Professor Amy Bilton (MIE), Calvin Rieder (MIE MASc graduate and research engineer), Puwaner Gou (MIE PhD student), Nitish Sarker (MIE postdoctoral associate) and Jordan Bouchard (research scientist, not pictured), are members of the Water and Energy Research Laboratory. The team is seen with the Frodo prototype and samples of their engineered foam, which is used as the treatment media. They are proceeding to the final stage of the challenge. (photo courtesy of Monisha Naik).

Professor Amy Bilton (MIE) and her research team have advanced to the final stage of Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Oil Spill Challenge. The team has been awarded $1.3M from the challenge so far to develop and test their prototype. The research team that wins the final stage will receive an additional $2M in funding to commercialize their technology.  

More than 4 million barrels of oil are transported through Canada daily. With a coastline surpassing 240,000 km and more than 890,000 km of freshwater systems across the country, effective oil spill response is critical in protecting diverse ecosystems and communities. Through the Oil Spill Response Challenge, the Government of Canada is investing $10M in the development of innovative and rapidly deployable solutions to oil spill detection, response and recovery in Canada’s aquatic environments.   

Currently, when a spill occurs, response vessels gather the oil with large, floating barriers called booms and suck oil and water into the hold of the ship using a skimmer. Once collected, typically around 25% of the mixture is oil and the remaining 75% is water with small trace amounts of oil. The ships offload the entire load of water and oil to a land-based facility for treatment, creating a bottleneck in operations since that 75% water is not yet safe to be released back into the environment.   

Bilton’s proposed solution is FRODO, a foam-based reclamation of decanted oily water system. This system allows for in-situ — on the ship treatment of the contaminated water stored in response vessels through an engineered polymer foam filter. The polymer foam filter can be compared to a specialized kitchen sponge that allows water to pass through and syphons off the small oil particles present. This filter and treatment system would clean the contaminated water on the ship so that water is safe to release back into the environment, allowing these vessels to collect significantly more oil in a more time-efficient manner, minimizing environmental impacts.  

A FRODO prototype unit showing the canisters that hold the foam filter allowing water to pass through and discharge back into the environment.
A FRODO prototype unit showing the canisters that hold the foam filter allowing water to pass through and discharge back into the environment. (photo courtesy of Amy Bilton)

“We’re both engineering the foam material and developing the treatment process to fill in a gap in current oil spill operations,” says Bilton. “We aim to increase the amount of oil these vessels can collect by a factor of four.”  

Assessing the environmental impact is another key part of this research. Canada has a zero-discharge policy, meaning no oil can be present in water when discharging it back into our water systems. These regulations vary by country. Norway, for example, requires the amount of oil in the discharge to be less than 15 parts per million. Bilton and her team are running a parallel project funded through NRCan’s Multi-partner Research Initiative to understand the environmental impact and considerations of implementing this in-situ treatment process.   

Bilton’s team is one of the five finalists moving on to Stage 3 of the competition with the winner set to be announced in winter of 2025. At this stage, the team has one year to accelerate, scale and test their prototype in preparation for commercialization.   

“We are in the testing phase now and are planning large-scale simulations at our Ohmset partner facility in New Jersey,” says Bilton.   

Additionally, the team is partnering with the West and East Coast Marine Response Corporation, VPC Group, and Urethane Sciences to ensure their system is scalable and can be manufactured. The current prototype is significantly smaller — around one metre in size — than what the final system will be. Ensuring the engineered polymer foam and other materials can be manufactured and meet strict requirements are top of mind at this stage of the challenge.   

“Our goal is that this system can be deployed quickly and effectively to improve oil spill response across Canada, and potentially in other parts of the world,” says Bilton.  

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