The US Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC)  explored technologies this past summer as part of its Arctic Technology Evaluation 2017.

After Action Report of the Oil Skimmer Test during 2017 Arctic Technology Evaluations aboard the CGC HEALY (full detailed report available upon request)

The receding Arctic sea ice has reached record lows in recent years, allowing for increased shipping traffic which presents a high risk of oil spills in the Arctic Alaska.  The U.S. Coast Guard is mandated by law to respond to oil spill incidents throughout the nation. Therefore, the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center (RDC), as the sole research facility of the Coast Guard responsible for introducing new technologies to the fleet, is constantly seeking new ways to improve the Coast Guard's oil spill capabilities.

The oil skimmers are the primary means for the Coast Guard and oil spill response organizations to recover oil after an incident. Oil skimmers are devices which sweep the contaminated water and recover (remove) the oil and discharge it onto a tethered or on-board storage device. The oil skimmers are relatively mature mechanical recovery technology, but are primarily used for open waters. In icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, ice patches block the skimmer from reaching the oil slicks and obstruct it's operation. As a result, the oil spill recovery in Arctic is more challenging than most other areas of the nation.

To identify a solution which could potentially mitigate the challenges of recovering oil spills in the Arctic, the RDC tested a new oil skimmer during the 2017 Arctic Technology Evaluations aboard the CGC HEALY. The new skimmer which is called RotoX, was custom built by Aqua-Guard (a company in Vancouver, CANADA). This self-propelled skimmer was designed to maneuver between the ice patches that surround oil slicks and push the smaller patches out of way of the skimming operation in search of the areas covered by oil.

The skimmer also has a frontal cutting mechanism to cut through ice patches for easier access to the entrapped spilled oils. The movements and functions of the RotoX skimmer are run by a “control console” which is connected to the skimmer through several long hydraulic hoses.

The funding for the test originates from the RDC's annual Research Development Test & Evaluation budget. The RDC relied on the expertise of several members of the National Strike Force (NSF) to conduct the test. The importance of this oil spill recovery technology for protecting the environments of Alaska and the Great Lakes cannot be overstated. 

Aqua-Guard’s summary of results:

The RBS TRITONTM oil recovery technology is a certified, proven technology with multiple patents (Canada and USA) and has been used on many environmental disasters in the world from small, chronic oil spills occurring in industrial environments, medium sized spills in lakes or harbours to large spills offshore.

The data collected during the tests in the Arctic was invaluable to the further development of the RotoX and its ice capabilities.  The RotoX skimmer proved to be successful in maneuvering around larger icebergs and also was able to use the dual onboard thrusters to displace smaller icebergs out of the way.

The goals of the test were to determine if a self-propelled skimmer has the ability to maneuver into pockets of water in between large pieces of ice, thus improving the efficeincy of the vessel movements. Previously, the icebreaker would have to move in order to re-position the skimmer into a different pocket of oil. When the icebreaker moves, all the surrounding ice also moves which potentially eliminates the pocket of oil for recovery.
The main goals of the test were reached as the skimmer proved it could navigate itself into small pockets of water where oil would pool in the event of an oil spill. While the ice-cutting mechanisn did not work as efficiently as USCG expected, it is not intended to macerate icebergs, but is intended to chop up smaller ice chunks into slush with the intention of positioning the skimmer into pockets of spilled oil. With the positive results, important feedback and USCG¹s recommendations from the tests, Aqua-Guard will invest further R&D to enhance the system for better efficiency in ice conditions.

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