The new boom is so lightweight it only weighs 22 pounds and can fit inside a suitcase. The new boom is so lightweight it only weighs 22 pounds and can fit inside a suitcase. The new boom is so lightweight it only weighs 22 pounds and can fit inside a suitcase. (Photo: Harbo Technologies)

New technology cuts response time to oil spills

Suitcase-sized device is mobile, lightweight and more effective at containing accidents.

Before you can clean up an oil spill, you have to contain it. Oil spill response systems haven’t changed in some 40 years: Specially trained teams deploy a huge heavy boom consisting of a flotation device weighted down by a heavy chain. These booms are so massive that they are only available in a few central locations around the world, meaning that when an oil spill occurs, it is at least several hours before a response team is on the scene.

Oil can spread up to 25 miles per day depending on weather and sea conditions. In the case of the 2007 Cosca Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay less than a half-mile from the U.S. Coast Guard station on Treasure Island, more than 50,000 gallons of the container ship’s own fuel had spread throughout the Bay, and eventually 40 miles offshore.

“Imagine what the world would look like if you had fire trucks, but you didn’t have sprinkler systems,” says Boaz Ur, co-founder and CEO of Harbo Technologies, a startup based in Israel.

Harbo wants to change the paradigm of how the industry responds to oil spills. Ur, along with the company’s two other co-founders and a team of advisors and contractors from Israel’s technology sector, have invented a new boom. The boom is so lightweight and compact that it can be placed on oil tankers, rigs, container and tourism ships, commercial ports and marinas, and aquatic agriculture operations to contain an oil spill before it spreads.

Some 20,000 oil spills occur every year in the United States. In a successful operation, about 10% of the oil spilled can be cleaned up. The rest is dispersed in the environment, along the shoreline, coating bird, animal and sea life on its way.

While there is still no way to prevent a spill, Harbo says by containing the oil immediately, cleanup success rates can be drastically increased. “If you could deploy a lot of boom when the spill just started, it could actually contain it. We wanted to have 6,000 feet of boom on site that could be deployed immediately by anybody,” Ur told From The Grapevine.

What they came up with was a floating fence that weighs a tiny fraction of existing systems, is inflated using air and water, and is disposable – current booms have to be washed, a process friendly neither to the workers nor the environment.

Harbo’s idea for a new boom won the U.C. Berkeley Startup Competition in 2012 for Energy & Cleantech. The company got a government grant and built a prototype. Last fall, Harbo took the prototype to Ohmsett – The National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey run by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Ohmsett called us three weeks before our scheduled test to ask who our importer was so they could get our containers cleared from customs. We told them we are bringing our boom in suitcases. I think it’s the first time anybody brought equipment to be tested at Ohmsett in three suitcases,” laughs Ur.

Boaz Ur wondered if there was existing technology that was fast enough to prevent oil spilled from one of those ships from hitting the bird. The answer was, there wasn't any—this past spring a grain carrier spilled 2,700 liters.This picture was taken in 2012 in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, Canada. Ur wondered if there was existing technology that was fast enough to prevent oil spilled from one of these ships from reaching the bird. The answer was, no. This past spring, a grain carrier spilled 2,700 liters, and the oil reached the shore before the Coast Guard could put the booms out 12 hours later. (Photo: Boaz Ur)

The tests conducted by Ohmsett engineers showed that 100 feet of Harbo boom – called T-Fence because of its shape – could contain 2 tons of oil without spilling a single drop. The boom weighed only 22 pounds.

“Before the boom is deployed, it’s only a plastic shell. When you fill it with air and water it becomes a meaningful boom. There’s nothing new about air and water – the patents are in the structure and how we make that work,” says Ur.

Now the company is completing development of the machine that will inflate the boom using compressed air and water. Ur says two technicians can be trained to use the system in as little as a day.

Numerous potential global customers throughout the industry who want to buy or distribute the technology have already approached the company. Harbo expects the system to be commercially available sometime next year, and at some point down the road, to be installed at 50,000 locations worldwide.

While they have not yet disclosed a price for the system, Ur says it will be “very reasonable” for what it can accomplish. “If you can contain the spill, everything you do later becomes exponentially more effective."

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