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Under Pressure

New research facility simulates ocean environment, helps plan for deep sea oil leaks

August 2015
Under Pressure
Two of the six custom Parr Instruments pressure reactors built to handle corrosive seawater and brines and able to simulate deep ocean environments up to 2 km in depth and 3000 psi in pressure.
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While many of us feel that we work in a high-pressure environment, it is now a physical reality for researchers embarking on work in a new hyperbaric research facility. Six customized reactors, valued at $17.5k each, simulate the pressure of deep ocean environments up to two kilometers in depth – the equivalent of 22 football fields.

Enhancing Leak Response

Located at PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory and supported by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the facility was completed in July 2015. Researchers will use the equipment to examine the physical and chemical state of oil and oil-dispersant mixes at various depths. The information will serve as a baseline for understanding the buoyancy and transport of oil released during a catastrophic leak, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The researchers will then measure rates of biodegradation and how enzymes respond when transitioned from low to high pressures. The results of these studies can be used to determine how effective bioremediation strategies are, and how to design better enzymes for use in high-pressure bioreactors.

Next Steps

The research team has already proposed additional studies to examine:

  • methane hydrate formation
  • pressure drop (oil within a well may be under 3x more pressure than in the ocean)
  • temperature drop (oil within a well may be at a temperature greater than 65 Celsius, compared to the deep ocean temperature of 4 Celsius)
  • sediments (may impact oil-dispersant mixing and droplet size)
  • micro- and nano-structure based anti-biofouling coatings function (first-ever controlled studies).

Modelers at PNNL and the National Energy Technology Laboratory will enhance current models with the results of the hyperbaric research, and will be better able to predict where spilled oil will end up and plan a response to collect it.

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