Swiss devise system to contain oil slicks

Volunteers use more traditional methods to remove oil from a Spanish beach after the Prestige oil spill Keystone

Swiss engineers say they have come up with a way to contain large oil spills, such as that caused by Prestige tanker disaster off the coast of Spain.

This content was published on February 21, 2003 - 13:06

They say the new system would be the first effective way to remove vast amounts of oil floating on the sea's surface.

Originally the brainchild of Ugo Cavalli, a retired engineer from Ticino, the idea has recently been taken up and developed by the engineers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Anton Schliess, professor at the laboratory of hydraulic construction at the Institute, says the device is comparable to a floating reservoir.

"The reservoir can be released from a tanker or an oil rig [in case of a spill] and it would be dragged around the oil slick by a boat to form a [giant circle]," Schliess told swissinfo.

"This circle could then be towed towards the shore where there's less wind, and the oil would then be easily pumped out of the reservoir."

Two smaller reservoirs, instead of one larger one, could also be used to create deeper wells of oil, he adds.

Schliess says the reservoir, which is not yet commercially available, would be made of light but highly resistant materials, strong enough to withstand all types of weather conditions.

"The reservoir would be able to resist high waves and the oil would be completely contained," Schliess explains. "It could prevent the spread over hundreds of kilometres of an oil slick, which is what happened with the Prestige [oil tanker]."

The Prestige spilled over a third of its 77,000-ton cargo of oil when it sank off the Spanish coast in November, triggering Spain's worst environmental disaster.


Since 2000, models of the reservoir have undergone numerous tests at the Institute's laboratories and water tanks, using simulated waves and wind.

While Schliess is confident about the feasibility of the reservoir, he says another three years of testing needs to be carried out before a prototype can be built.

"[Once testing is complete] prototype reservoirs could be installed on tankers or be used by oil spill response companies," he says. "In theory, we could have a commercial model within five years."

swissinfo, Billi Bierling and Vanessa Mock

In brief

Engineers at the Lausanne's Federal Institute of Technology say they have developed a model of a giant reservoir to contain oil slick in tanker disasters.
They say a commercial model could be available within five years.
The Swiss Petrol Union recently donated SFr150,000 to the Institute to continue developing the reservoir.

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