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The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seven years ago showed just how hard it is to combat a massive oil spill. Cleaning oil from water is a challenge, especially on the open sea. Now the federal government is backing research on a new method to burn oil off of the water. NPR's Debbie Elliott watched the first test outside the laboratory.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This is what the scientists call a relevant environment - a cold and windy day in Mobile Bay. Researchers from WPI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, have come here to Little Sand Island off the Alabama coast to test a new technology for burning oil floating on water.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So let's all start getting ready to light a fire.
ELLIOTT: Lighting it on fire is one of three ways to clean up an oil spill. You can use skimmers and oil booms to soak it up, dispersants to break it up or fire to burn it up. Fire protection engineering professor Ali Rangwala leads the WPI team that's testing what they call the Flame Refluxer, a faster way to burn an oil slick.
ALI RANGWALA: It's very simple.
ELLIOTT: He shows me a copper blanket.
RANGWALA: Two meshes of copper, and in between that is copper wool.
ELLIOTT: Imagine a giant Brillo pad sandwiched between layers of copper screen. Springy copper coils are attached to the top.
RANGWALA: The coils collect the heat from the flame, and they transmit it to the copper blanket.
ELLIOTT: The goal is to make a hotter, faster and more complete burn that leaves less pollution. Workers place the blanket inside a ring of floating fire barrier in a concrete pool, part of the U.S. Coast Guard's joint maritime test facility on the island. Oil is pumped from a nearby tank, and a long, torch-like lighter sets it afire. The flames reach up to 12 feet high. Professor Rangwala monitors by video nearby.
RANGWALA: Very good. It's looking very good.
ELLIOTT: Engineers are tracking the fire's heat and emissions being captured by a strategically placed wind saw.
RANGWALA: What does the fume level look like? Is it regressing, or is it constant underwater?
ELLIOTT: The potential here is to reduce both air pollution and the layer of tar that's left over and sinks to the ocean floor threatening marine life. Rangwala says the copper blanket was designed to capture any remaining residue. But they're finding that the tar is burning off as well. He says the test indicates a hotter, quicker and cleaner burn.
RANGWALA: It guarantees about three times faster than baseline. And the smoke is also grayish in color compared to black.
ELLIOTT: That gray smoke with less soot is one of the things that Karen Stone is looking for.
KAREN STONE: So the lighter it is, the cleaner it is.
ELLIOTT: Stone is an oil spill response engineer with BSEE, the Federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The agency has invested $1.5 million to develop the Flame Refluxer and is also paying for other new technology. It's an effort to be better prepared to respond since the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf revealed some major gaps. For example, the country didn't have enough fire boom on hand and had to scramble to borrow supply from other countries.
STONE: Once you have a spill, it really gets the attention, and we realize, wow, we really need to advance it and make it better, improve it for when it happens again.
ELLIOTT: Stone says the technology that's working here in the Gulf environment also shows promise for responding to oil spills in the Arctic, but it's likely five to 10 years from being used in an actual disaster. The next step is finding the best way to deploy and test it in open water. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile.
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