CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A researcher at the University of Illinois is developing a floating oil skimmer that removes oil from the surface of water more efficiently than existing skimmers and, when it becomes available, could help clean up oil spills such as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
Tim Lindsey, associate director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, is developing the technology, called a floating telescoping weir skimmer. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer | View video
Tim Lindsey, associate director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, is developing the technology, called a floating telescoping weir skimmer. Using a telescoping weir cup attached to a floating vessel, such as a pontoon boat, the device creates laminar flow to draw oil from the water’s surface into a separator unit. Within the separator, the oil accumulates on polypropylene balls, or other oil-coalescing surfaces, and is diverted to a reservoir, where it is stored for refining.
“Conventional skimming devices operate like vacuum cleaners – you have to move them around to collect the oil,” Lindsey said. “With this skimmer, you only have to get it near the oil because it can draw the oil in. It is the equivalent of being able to set a vacuum cleaner in the center of the room and have it pull in all the dirt without having to move the vacuum around the room. That principle is important when you have hundreds of square miles of ocean to clean.”
Lindsey’s model, while only a fraction of the size of what would be needed to clean up a large oil slick, is highly efficient, separating hundreds of gallons of oil and water per minute, significantly reducing water pollution while rapidly recovering spilled oil.
“As efficient as this is, it probably would be worthwhile to do this as an oil-harvesting process just for the value of the oil,” said Lindsey, whose background includes work in the oil industry and in environmental consulting.
The floating telescoping weir skimmer is based upon a purification system that Lindsey invented to remove oily liquids from industrial fluids used to clean, lubricate and cool manufactured parts and machine tools in factories. The purification system, which is in operation at several U.S. plants that manufacture transmissions for trucks and tanks, provides substantial savings for industry by reducing contamination and maintaining expensive fluids in usable condition for longer periods of time. The purification system also is far more compact and efficient than other types of skimmers that are available, he said.
Lindsey has applied for a patent on the floating telescoping weir skimmer and is seeking funding to build a full-scale prototype and put it to the test.
“It wouldn’t take long to build,” Lindsey said. “The skimmer could be fabricated in a week in a machine shop, and I’d just need to find a pontoon boat that’s about the right size to install it on.”
Before joining the staff at Illinois, Lindsey worked for Exxon at one of the nation’s largest energy processing facilities. In 1989 the company asked him to travel to Alaska to help clean up the spill from the Exxon Valdez tanker, in which more than 10 million gallons of crude oil was released into Prince William Sound. The Valdez disaster was the largest spill to occur in U.S. waters until the Deepwater Horizon disaster. However, the impending birth of Lindsey’s second son kept him from accepting that assignment.
Lindsey joined the ISTC in 1991 and has published widely on pollution-prevention technologies and promoting innovative sustainability practices.