Nova Scotia

Researchers focus on oil spill cleanup methods for use in Arctic waters

Two Dalhousie University research projects are being funded under a $45-million federal program to improve oil spill response in Canada, especially in northern waters.

Expected increases in ship traffic heighten risk of northern oil spills

An aerial view off the central coast of B.C. after a tug called the Nathan E. Stewart ran aground on Oct. 13, 2016, and sank, spilling 110,000 litres of diesel into the water. New research projects announced Friday are focused on improving oil spill cleanup. (Heiltsuk Nation)

What if you could predict the path of an oil spill on the ocean surface like a weather forecast?

Or find a way to remove oil from oily waste water at sea?

Those are the goals of two Dalhousie University research projects funded Friday under a $45-million federal program to improve oil spill response in Canada.

Both projects are aimed specifically at potential oil spills in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

With climate change accelerating the Arctic ice melt, the Northwest Passage is expected to see increased ship traffic in the future.

Refining cleanup techniques

Engineer Haibo Niu is trying to develop a computer model that will predict the movement of an oil spill so responders know where it's going and what it threatens.

The arctic archipelago poses a unique challenge, he said.

"There are a lot of little, small islands that make it very complicated, difficult because the traditional models with the coast resolution, you can't resolve the currents correctly. In order to simulate oil transport correctly, we need high-resolution ocean models," Niu said.

Over the next four years, Lei Liu is trying to find a way to use existing membrane technology to filter oil from oily waste water collected on board vessels during a spill cleanup.

The goal is to create a unit carried on board to remove oil, allowing clean water to be discharged at sea rather than carried back to shore for treatment.

"Then the storage space could be saved and we can save a lot of hauling costs," he said.

The total cost for both projects is $540,000.

30 projects funded so far

They are two of 30 research projects funded so far under the Multi-Partner Research Initiative led by renowned Canadian oil spill expert Ken Lee.

Lee, a Halifax-based federal Fisheries and Oceans scientist, was hired by the United States government to help deal with the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

He said the projects' goals are twofold: to promote research that falls outside normal government channels and to develop an easily accessible network of knowledge should a spill occur.

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Paul Withers

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Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.