The highly successful, widespread deployment of PyroBoom® fireboom for controlled burning in the Gulf represented a crowning achievement in a development journey spanning more than 30 years.
The concept of burning spilled or leaked oil on the sea’s surface has been known for many years, offering an extremely effective way of reducing the spill by as much as 90 percent with minimal equipment. The method, commonly known as in-situ or controlled burning, takes advantage of the fact that oil can be ignited on water if the layer is at least 3 mm in thickness – even under Arctic conditions.
Compared with mechanical clean-up, chemical dispersants and natural assimilation, in-situ burning is highly effective, particularly in remote areas where the resulting smoke plume isn’t so visible, or where it is difficult to deploy other types of clean-up equipment. Moreover, if properly employed, in-situ burning can result in the least detrimental overall impact on the environment.
Although these advantages had long been recognized, the true potential of in-situ burning could not be realized: the technology to do the job properly simply wasn’t available, and regulatory acceptance was slow in coming.
The journey begins
It wasn’t until the late 1900s, in fact, that the first steps were taken in a journey that would see finally see in-situ burning emerge as a mainstream option. Numerous research efforts aimed at finding the most efficient burning means were conducted or commissioned by Shell Oil Company, Dome Petroleum and Exxon (now ExxonMobil), all with significant production in Canada and on the Alaska North Slope. These investments sparked a wave of new exploration into the development of durable, fire-resistant materials that could deliver on the promise of in-situ burning.
In 1982, a landmark Exxon Production Research project began to explore the technique of in-situ burning in earnest. At that point, the materials available for use were hopelessly inadequate. For a time, the best available practice was to take a conventional boom, wrap a multi-layer fabric “blanket” around it that could absorb as much seawater as possible, then light the oil and hope for the best. At some stage, however, a salt line or silt build-up could form in the material, allowing the fire to take hold and burn the fabric away – making the solution time-consuming and expensive to use. Despite various attempts to remedy such problems, the “water-cooled” model faced significant challenges.