By Rhoda Miel, Plastics News
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has pushed demand for containment booms and the parts that go into them -- including plastics -- well beyond supply.
How much demand?
Existing production of the 6-inch polyethylene foam logs, used for flotation devices in the booms, is already spoken for, so companies are developing new technologies and using alternatives. Like pool noodles.
"They're creating their own rounds by rolling smaller-diameter foams," said John Waddington, corporate field engineer with UFP Technologies Inc.'s United Foam unit.
"There are even guys who are going into Wal-Mart and buying up pool noodles that they can use as a core with other materials."
Since the Deep Water Horizon oil platform under construction for BP plc exploded April 20, oil has gushed into the water from a mile below the surface. Oil has been reported on beaches from Texas to Florida, and governments and businesses all along the Gulf have been scrambling to find containment and absorption materials.
"You can't buy the materials out there now," said David Burns, vice president of research and development for Peco-Facet of Mineral Wells, Texas. "They're already spoken for."
A traditional boom consists of a PVC-coated PE fabric and PE foam for the flotation device, along with galvanised steel cables and a ballast chain. As the spill continued and grew, however, traditional containment materials were bought out. Now companies are looking to new materials and technology.
Peco-Facet, owned by Clarcor Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee, already was making filtration units for the oil and gas industry using a porous polypropylene prior to the start of the spill. Now it is making booms using PP from its waste stream. It just installed equipment for boom manufacturing, using its existing workforce.
UFP, based in Georgetown, Massachusetts, has been developing and testing PE, PP and polyurethane materials for booms from its United Foams facilities in Kissimmee, Florida, and Decatur, Alabama.
"Some people are scrambling to come up with something to meet the demands for booms, but at the same time, there are people who remember the old saying and want to build a better mousetrap," said Waddington, who is based in Kissimmee.
Reticulated PU foam, for example, could be used for both flotation and absorption, soaking up the oil while also having the potential to be wrung out, "like a sponge," and redeployed, he said."