Use of Sorbent Materials in Oil Spill Response

Use of Sorbent Materials in Oil Spill Response

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Description: Oil sorbents comprise a wide range of organic, inorganic and synthetic products designed to recover oil in preference to water. Their composition and configuration are dependent upon the material used and their intended application in the response. While widely used in spill response, sorbents should be employed with caution to minimize inappropriate and excessive use that can present major logistical difficulties associated with secondary contamination, retrieval, storage, and disposal.

These all contribute significantly to the overall costs of clean-up operations. In particular, synthetic sorbent material should be used in moderation and care taken to ensure it is used to its full capacity to minimize subsequent waste disposal problems.

 
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Contents:
USE OF SORBENT
MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL
RESPONSE
TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER

8

Introduction
Sorbent materials can provide a useful resource in a response to a spill of oil, allowing oil to
be recovered in situations that are unsuitable for other techniques. However, sorbents should
be used in moderation to minimise secondary problems, particularly by creating excessive
amounts of waste that can greatly add to the costs of a response.
This paper considers the types of sorbents available and how they may be used beneficially in
a response. It should be read in conjunction with other ITOPF papers in this series, particularly
on the use of booms, the use of skimmers, shoreline clean-up techniques and the disposal
of oil and debris.

Overview
Oil sorbents comprise a wide range of organic, inorganic and
synthetic products designed to recover oil in preference to
water. Their composition and configuration are dependent
upon the material used and their intended application in
the response.
While widely used in spill response, sorbents should be
employed with caution to minimise inappropriate and
excessive use that can present major logistical difficulties
associated with secondary contamination, retrieval, storage
and disposal. These all contribute significantly to the overall
costs of clean-up operations. In particular, synthetic sorbent
material should be used in moderation and care taken to
ensure it is used to its full capacity to minimise subsequent
waste disposal problems.
In general, sorbents are used most effectively during the final
stages of shoreline clean-up (Figure 1) and for recovering
small pools of oil that cannot be easily recovered using other
clean-up techniques. Sorbents are not appropriate for use
in the open sea and are generally less effective with more
viscous oils, such as heavy fuel oil, and with oils that have
become weathered and emulsified, although some sorbents
have been specifically engineered for viscous oils.

How sorbents work
In order for a material to act as a sorbent, it should attract
oil preferentially to water, i.e. it should be both oleophilic
and hydrophobic. Sorbent materials can act either by
adsorption or, less commonly, by absorption. In adsorption,
the oil is preferentially attracted to the surface of the material
whereas absorbents incorporate the oil, or other liquid to
be recovered, into the body of the material. The majority of
products available for oil spill response are adsorbents; few
are true absorbents.

5
Figure 1: Polypropylene sorbent boom used to collect oil
released during flushing operations.

not leak out, nor can it be squeezed out under pressure.
Absorbents available for pollution response are made from
engineered polymers with a high surface area to promote
rapid absorption. As they may reduce the surface area of the
liquid, absorbents can be used with volatile products. While
absorbent materials are, in theory, capable of recovering
light fuel oils and some crude oils, the time required for
absorption may be longer than is practical or desirable and,
as a consequence, they are suited more to the recovery of low
viscosity liquids and spilt chemicals, particularly hazardous
and noxious substances, as discussed in the separate
ITOPF paper on Response to Marine Chemical Incidents.
Absorbents are therefore less commonly encountered in oil
spill response than adsorbents.

Adsorbents
To minimise confusion, the widely used generic term sorbent
is adopted in this paper as its primary focus is the use of
adsorbents in oil spill response. The various mechanisms
that allow a material to adsorb oil are described below.

Absorbents
Liquids diffuse into the matrix of a solid absorbent material
by a process similar to capillary action, causing it to swell
and combine with the material in such a way that it will

2

Wetting properties
For successful adsorption, oil should wet the material and
therefore spread over its surface in preference to water.
A liquid will wet a solid if its surface tension is less than

USE OF SORBENT MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL RESPONSE

the critical surface tension (ƴc) of the solid. Therefore, for
a sorbent to fulfil the required criteria, it should have a ƴc
value below that of water and above that of oil. The surface
tension of seawater is approximately 60–65 mN/m; the value
for oil varies depending on the composition but is typically
around 20 mN/m. Therefore, for example, PTFE with a ƴc
value of 18 mN/m will adsorb neither oil nor water whereas
polypropylene with a ƴc value of 29 mN/m makes an ideal
oil sorbent.
Many natural and synthetic solids have suitable ƴc values.
Inorganic solids that do not have the required value can be
modified by various surface treatments, including heating, to
produce the desired condition. An example of such a product
is exfoliated vermiculite. For a number of materials, notably
sorbent foams and loose fibres, the oleophilic properties
can be enhanced once they have initially been wetted or
primed with oil.

Capillary action
With some materials, adsorption occurs via capillary
action. While this is also dependent on the relative surface
tensions of the solid and liquid, the viscosity of the oil has an
important effect on the rate of penetration into the structure
of the sorbent. Oil penetration rates can be fast (a matter of
seconds) for low viscosity oils, such as light crudes, or slow
(several hours) to negligible for high viscosity oils, such as
heavy fuel oil or weathered oils.
Capillary action is particularly important with foam-based
sorbents. Foams with fine pores recover low viscosity oils
easily but the pores quickly become clogged with thicker
oils. Conversely, foams with a coarse cell structure are
effective with viscous oils but are unable to effectively retain
low viscosity oils.

on both adhesion of the oil to the sorbent surface and the
cohesive properties of oil which allow greater quantities of
oil to be retained by the sorbent. If the sorbent is in the form
of a hank of loose strands, the cohesion of the oil among
the sorbent elements can serve to produce a congealed
mass that retards the spreading of the oil making it easier
to recover the oil and sorbent mixture. Cohesion is greater
for more viscous oils.

Surface area
In addition to the wetting, spreading and capillary
characteristics of a particular sorbent material, its sorption
rate and capacity are directly related to the exposed surface
area. A successful sorbent material should have a high
surface area to volume ratio, including external and available
internal surfaces.
For viscous oils that are unable to flow rapidly into a sorbent
material, the performance will be determined by the available
external surface area. For example, loose strands of sorbent
have a greater relative external surface area than a boom
and so might be expected to have a higher sorption rate
and be more effective with viscous oils.
In contrast to absorbents, adsorbent materials should be used
on volatile liquids with caution. Spreading of the liquid over the
internal and external surface area of an adsorbent material
can increase the rate of vapour release, with attendant
consequences for combustion and/or human health.

Sorbent materials and forms
Sorbent materials

Cohesion refers to the attraction of a material to itself thereby
opposing spreading on a solid surface, while adhesion refers
to the attraction of one material to another. Sorbents rely

A wide variety of materials can be used as sorbents. These
include organic materials such as bark, peat, sawdust,
paper-pulp, bagasse (the waste product from processing
sugar cane), cork, chicken feathers, straw (Figure 2), wool
and human hair; inorganic materials such as vermiculite
and pumice; and synthetic material such as polypropylene

5
Figure 2: Improvised sorbent booms constructed from straw
and netting. Such booms are cheap and easy to construct and
can provide effective short-term protection when deployed
in suitable areas.

5
Figure 3: Strips of polypropylene enclosed in netting. The
loose inhomogeneous structure of the boom may allow oil to
readily penetrate into the structure allowing inner surfaces to
adsorb oil but the enclosing netting may be easily damaged.

Cohesion / adhesion

TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER 8

3

5
Figure 4: The surface of a continuous, homogeneous
sorbent boom cut away to show only partial use. The inner
volume remains unoiled, either because the boom has been
deployed for an insufficient period or because the oil is too
viscous to penetrate into the structure.

5
Figure 5: Continuous flat sorbents, such as this sheet laid
on a shoreline, are characterised by a high surface area to
volume ratio. The large scale use of sorbent in this manner
should be balanced against the generation of considerable
volumes of potentially unoiled waste.

(Figures 3, 4 and 5) and other polymers.

be attractive as they are often either abundant in nature or
are the waste by-product of an industrial process, and can
be purchased readily at low cost or are freely available.

Synthetic sorbents are generally the most effective in
recovering oil. In some cases a ratio by weight of oil to sorbent
of 40:1 can be achieved compared to 10:1 for organic products
and as little as 2:1 for inorganic materials. Despite the limited
adsorptive capability, organic and inorganic materials may

Material
Bulk

• Organic – including bark,
peat, sawdust, paper-pulp,
cork, chicken feathers,
straw, wool and human
hair.
• Inorganic – vermiculite and
pumice

The relative effectiveness of different sorbent materials has
been tested by a number of organisations to assess how
much oil a given weight of a particular sorbent material

Benefits

Disadvantages

• Often naturally abundant or
widely available as waste
by-product of industrial
processes
• Can be low cost
• Can serve to protect wildlife
at haul-out sites

• Difficult to control, can be
spread by the wind
• Difficult to retrieve
• Oil and sorbent mixture can
be difficult to pump
• Disposal of oil sorbent
mixture more limited than oil
alone

• Synthetic – primarily
polypropylene

Enclosed

• All of the above bulk
materials can be enclosed
in mesh or nets

• More straightforward to
deploy and retrieve than
loose sorbent
• Enclosed boom has a
greater surface area than
continuous boom

• Structural strength limited to
that of the mesh or net
• Organic booms can rapidly
become saturated and sink.
Oil retention is limited

Continuous

• Synthetic – primarily
polypropylene

• Long-term storage
• Relatively straightforward to
deploy and retrieve
• High oil recovery ratio
possible if used to full
capacity

• Limited efficiency for
weathered or more viscous
oils
• Do not readily decompose
limiting disposal options

Fibre

• Synthetic – primarily
polypropylene

• Effective on weathered and
more viscous oils

• Less effective on fresh light
and medium oils

5
Table 1: The benefits and disadvantages of available types of adsorbent material.

4

USE OF SORBENT MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL RESPONSE

5
Figure 6: Local villagers constructing snares from strips
of polypropylene. The manufacture of sorbent from locally
available materials can be cost effective in terms of price
as well as efficiency of transport.

5
Figure 7: Snare strung across an estuary to catch floating
oil. The open structure and large surface area of the material
are particularly suited to the recovery of viscous oils.

might be expected to retain. Although these test results can
be useful in the comparative ranking of the effectiveness
of one sorbent material over another, they are performed
under laboratory or controlled field conditions and may
therefore be misleading. In practice, sorbents are subject
to wind, waves and currents and under these natural and
unpredictable conditions, their performance is unlikely to
match the outcomes reported in such tests.

Continuous sorbent

Forms of sorbent
Sorbents are marketed in various forms according to their
composition and their intended use, but can be categorised
generally as one of four types: bulk loose material, often as
particulate; enclosed in a mesh as pillows or booms; continuous
in the form of mats, sheets, booms or rolls; and as loose fibres
combined to form snares or sweeps (Table 1). Other types of
sorbent may be available for specific applications.

Sorbent in bulk
Most of the materials listed above are marketed as loose
sorbent and serve a useful purpose to recover small spills of
oil on land. Primarily due to the difficulties of controlling their
application and retrieval, their use in the marine environment
should be limited to specific scenarios described in the section
below on the use of sorbents on shorelines.

Enclosed sorbent
Bulk loose sorbent materials are often enclosed in an outer
fabric, mesh or netting to form a boom, pillow or sock that
is more straightforward to deploy, control and subsequently
easier to retrieve than the loose material itself. Enclosed
sorbent products vary in shape and volume but booms are
the most common (not to be confused with the continuous
form of boom described below). Enclosed sorbent is typically
produced using readily available organic or inorganic
natural materials such as straw (Figure 2) but may also
comprise individual elements of synthetic material such as
polypropylene (Figure 3).

TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER 8

Continuous cylindrical sorbent, primarily boom, differs
from the enclosed loose material boom described in the
previous section by having a greater homogeneity and
a lower surface area to volume ratio, meaning oil is less
readily able to penetrate to the core of the boom (Figure 4).
Continuous flat sorbents such as sheets, rolls, mats, pads
and webs are characterised by their high surface area to
volume ratio (Figure 5).
Continuous sorbents are primarily manufactured from
synthetic materials with woven, melt-blown, polypropylene
being one of the materials most commonly used during
spill response. However, sorbents produced from other
materials such as polyurethane, nylon and polyethylene
may be encountered occasionally.

Loose fibre sorbent
While bulk, enclosed and continuous sorbent products are
effective on a wide range of oils, they are less efficient in
the recovery of more weathered and high viscosity oils.
Bundles or hanks of loose sorbent fibres are available that
allow these oils to be recovered through a combination of
adhesion to a large surface area and cohesion within the
oil itself. Primarily produced from strips of polypropylene,
these are usually attached together to form snares also
known as ‘pom poms’ (Figure 6). Several individual snares
may be attached along a length of rope to form viscous oil
sweeps, or ‘snare boom’ (Figure 7). Rope mop skimming
machines use a form of sweep in a continuous band often
many metres in length to recover and collect oil. Please
see the separate ITOPF paper on the Use of Skimmers for
further information.
Viscous oil snares have also been used successfully to assist
with the detection of sunken and sub-surface oil, either by
suspension in the water column from floats and anchors
or by sweeping or trawling the seabed attached to a metal
frame. The presence of oil in the sea is indicated by oiling
of the sorbent, allowing more quantitative methods to focus

5

on identified areas. Further details are given in the separate
ITOPF paper on Sampling and Monitoring of Marine Oil Spills.

Criteria for selecting sorbents
In addition to the form in which the sorbent is presented and
the ability of a particular material to selectively take up oil,
other factors also affect a sorbent’s effectiveness.

Buoyancy
For sorbents to be used effectively on floating oil they must
have and retain high buoyancy, remaining afloat even when
saturated with oil and water. A number of natural organic
materials such as straw and sawdust have good initial
buoyancy but eventually become waterlogged and sink.
However, buoyancy can in some cases be detrimental to the
effectiveness of a sorbent. For example, some lighter, less
dense materials may remain on top of heavy, viscous oils.
In such instances the sorbent material may require manual
mixing with the oil to promote saturation and allow effective
recovery to proceed.
The buoyancy of foam sorbents is directly related to the ratio
of enclosed cells to open cells; the greater the number of
open cells, the greater the sorption capability at the expense
of buoyancy.

Saturation
Sorbents can quickly become saturated by oil. Even a
relatively small slick may quickly overwhelm a sorbent boom
and oil may be released from the sorbent to contaminate
the resource that it was intended to protect. Once saturated,
sorbents cannot recover further oil and should be removed
as quickly as possible to avoid any subsequent leaching.
The level of saturation can be difficult to identify, often
requiring the boom to be cut open. Incomplete saturation
is frequently experienced with viscous oils where booms
may be recovered and discarded mistakenly, leaving the
inner layers unused (Figure 4). Such unnecessary wastage
can be avoided or decreased by using sorbent boom with a

small diameter, reducing the volume of unused material in
the centre of the boom, while at the same time maintaining
its effectiveness, or by using oil snares.
Sorbent sheets can become quickly saturated when placed in
contact with even small quantities of oil and their use should
be restricted to small scale incidents where the amount of
oil to be recovered is limited.

Oil retention
One of the key aspects of the overall performance of a sorbent
is its ability to retain oil. Some materials rapidly adsorb oil but,
unless retrieved in good time, the sorbent may subsequently
release much of it as a result of the effects of wind, waves
and currents. Similarly, some sorbents release oil when lifted
from the water as the weight of recovered liquid can cause
the sorbent to sag and deform, squeezing oil from within
pores or internal surfaces. Oil retention can be a particular
problem when using sorbents with low inherent strength, in
particular those constructed from organic materials.
Sorbent materials with fine pores, such as vermiculite
and some foams, generally exhibit good oil retention
characteristics. The drawback with these materials is their
poor performance in the recovery of viscous oils. Snares
can become quickly saturated with oil, primarily due to their
large surface area. However, they may release oil when
they are lifted from the water surface. The rate of release is
directly dependent upon the viscosity of the oil, with lighter,
less viscous oils dripping off more rapidly.

Strength and durability
The durability of a sorbent is important in those situations
where it may be left in-situ for an extended period of time
before recovery. Sorbent booms may start to degrade and
fall apart within a matter of hours as a result of environmental
effects, such as wave action or abrasion on rocks. The
strength of some sorbent booms, particularly those composed
of enclosed loose material, is dependent on the durability
of the retaining netting material, which may break open in
adverse environmental conditions. Once damaged, the
contents of these booms will be easily lost and may become
a secondary source of contamination.

Fermentation
Some organic sorbents can ferment when left in contact with
water for an extended period of time. In addition to altering
their composition and efficiency in selectively recovering oil,
this can give rise to problems with recovery, storage and
disposal of the resultant sorbent/liquid mixture.

Cost

5
Figure 8. Sorbent materials by their nature are bulky products.
Storage and transport before, during and after a response
to a spill can pose logistical and cost issues.

6

The cost of sorbent products varies greatly and is primarily
dependent upon the material used. Organic and inorganic
materials are comparatively less expensive than synthetic
products. However, this low unit cost will require a tradeoff to be made to take account of the additional quantities
required due to their low relative efficiency. The additional
costs of disposal of higher volumes of material should also

USE OF SORBENT MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL RESPONSE

be considered when selecting the most appropriate product.
Despite the high cost of synthetic products, they are often
many times more effective and, in some instances, they
can be reused.

Availability, storage and transportation
The performance of synthetic sorbents makes their use
attractive but they may not always be immediately available
at the site of the spill. While organic and inorganic sorbents
may be less efficient, they may offer a pragmatic alternative
as they are often more widely available. However, the
requirement for a number of organic products to be pretreated before they can be used effectively as sorbents may
limit their availability in an emergency response.
Sorbents are bulky by nature (Figure 8) and, in large amounts,
the space required for storage can be significant. Where
storage space is limited and large quantities of sorbents are
required, storage may only be possible outside. If this is the
case, protection from sunlight will be necessary to prevent
degradation by UV light, especially in the case of synthetic
sorbents. Storage of organic sorbents should take account
of the potential for deterioration in damp conditions and
damage as a result of mildew, rodents or insects.
As with storage, transportation of large volumes of sorbents
can invoke logistical problems, both from the warehouse to
a distribution centre in the general vicinity of the spill and
from there into the field where the sorbents are to be used.
In particular, flying plane-loads of sorbents to a spill site is
unlikely to be cost-effective.

Use of sorbents on or near the
shoreline
Sorbents can play a number of useful roles in nearshore
and onshore clean-up operations. However, the use of large
quantities of sorbents should be avoided where possible
to minimise secondary problems associated with disposal

5
Figure 9: The large-scale use of sorbent to recover oil on
a hard sand beach. The use of sorbent material should
be appropriate to the scale of contamination, bring an
appreciable benefit to the response and not unduly add to
the waste requiring disposal.

TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER 8

(Figure 9). Consequently, the large-scale use of sorbents
on shorelines should be restricted to those situations where
other techniques are not likely to be effective or feasible. Oil
on hard sand beaches, for example, can usually be recovered
without the extensive use of sorbents by workers equipped
with shovels or through the use of trenches. On the other
hand, in circumstances where oil is held against a shoreline,
inaccessible other than on foot, and where skimmers and
pumps cannot be deployed, it is very difficult to handle fluid
oil without the aid of sorbents. Nevertheless, many of the
concerns relating to availability, transportation and storage
of sorbents, both before and after use, still apply.
Anchored close to shore, sorbent boom can be used
effectively to catch run-off from shore washing operations,
for example during high pressure washing of oiled rocks
(see front cover), or in the intertidal zone to collect refloated/
remobilised oil. Sometimes referred to as ‘passive cleaning’,
sorbent and snare booms can be very effective in trapping
oil mobilised on successive tides from highly sensitive
areas, particularly saltmarshes and mangroves, where other
response techniques may cause unacceptable additional
damage. Similarly, the technique may be used to recover
oil released from rock armour and rip- rap over successive
tides. The fine-mesh netting material used as dust screen for
scaffolding works has also been used in this way successfully
to capture viscous oil released from shorelines comprising
boulders, cobbles and coarse sand. One end of the netting
is secured on the shore while the other is free to move in
the sea. Provided environmental conditions are suitable,
in particular the water velocity through the boom is not too
high, snare boom can also be effective when strung across
industrial water intakes to help limit the ingression of floating
high viscosity oil (Figure 7).
In general, the use of sorbents in conjunction with shoreline
washing techniques during the final phase of a clean-up
operation is preferable to sorbents being used directly
for wiping rocks since this latter technique results in large
amounts of material requiring disposal. Nevertheless,
sorbents can be useful for the removal of small amounts

5
Figure 10: Organic particulate sorbent material such as peat
or bark may be applied on rocky shores of importance to
wildlife (e.g. penguins and seals), to minimise contamination
to fur and feathers as they come ashore.

7

5
Figure 11: Sorbent pads applied at sea. Considerable effort
will be required to subsequently recover the pads to eliminate
secondary contamination. Use of containment boom and
skimmers may afford a more effective means of recovering
the oil than the use of sorbents.

5
Figure 12: Sorbent boom towed in a ‘U’ formation behind
two vessels, with the aim of recovering sheen (very thin oil
films) at sea. Saturation of the boom by seawater limits its
effectiveness and the lack of skirt on the boom limits the
ability to contain oil. Here oil can be seen escaping from
the boom.

of residual oil that would otherwise be difficult to recover
with reasonable cost and effort. Contaminated rock pools
in particular are candidates for cleaning with sorbents, for
example polypropylene snares that are capable of removing
both viscous and weathered oils. The use of sorbents to
recover sheen is generally not necessary in most climates,
as sheen will normally dissipate naturally.

Application

The large-scale use of bulk loose sorbents near-shore or on
the shoreline is generally not advocated, primarily because
of the difficulties of controlling the application of the material
and its subsequent recovery. Nevertheless, situations may
arise where recovery is not contemplated and its use may be
advantageous. For example, organic products such as
peat or bark can be spread on oiled shorelines to adsorb
bulk oil and afford a measure of protection to local fauna,
especially sensitive marine mammals and birds such as
seals or penguins at haul-out sites (Figure 10). In some
countries, organic and inorganic bulk sorbents are used in
the final stages of clean-up in the knowledge that, although
the sorbents will not be recovered, the oil/sorbent mixture
will be removed over time by natural processes, which also
bring about its distribution over a wide area and the gradual
breakdown of the oil.

Use of sorbents at sea
The use of sorbents as a primary response tool in a major
oil spill response at sea is to be discouraged. In addition
to problems of control of the material on the water surface
and increased volumes of oily waste requiring disposal
(Figure 11), the application of sorbents to an oil slick does
not ease the problems inherent in at-sea containment and
recovery operations. The resultant oil-sorbent mixture will
likely hinder the operation of skimmers and will still be subject
to the effects of the wind, currents and waves, resulting in
the break-up of slicks that will be no easier to control than
the original spill.

8

The use of bulk sorbents at sea raises a number of efficiency
and safety issues, as broadcasting loose powder or
particulate sorbents over open water has several inherent
disadvantages. Any wind is likely to cause the product to be
carried away from the slick, causing wastage and additional
pollution. Blowers are sometimes used to broadcast bulk
loose sorbents over a spill and personnel undertaking such
activities need to protect their eyes from dust and should
take precautions against accidental inhalation or ingestion.
Without suitable mixing of the sorbent material into the oil
the sorbent may simply float on top of the oil resulting in
poor efficiency. In order to overcome these obstacles, a
number of special devices have been designed to discharge
powder and particulate sorbents over the side of a ship in
a controlled manner. To be of benefit such devices would
need to be within easy reach of a spill site, whereas they
are not widely available.
Sorbent boom is far easier to deploy than bulk loose sorbent.
However, the limitations imposed on the use of containment
boom by currents, winds and sea state are even more
applicable to sorbent boom. Sorbent booms are relatively
light, especially immediately after deployment, and may be
lifted by the wind. They therefore require lashing or anchoring
and some sorbent booms are available with lashing points
provided. In order to combine the advantages of sorbents with
conventional containment boom, some manufacturers have
produced sorbent booms with a ballasted skirt. For minor
spills of oil, for example in marinas or fishing harbours, this
product may assist both the containment and the recovery
operations. This is marketed as a disposable product
unsuitable for reuse, bringing attendant costs of disposal.
Towing sorbent boom to recover thin films of oil or sheen
from the water surface (Figure 12) is generally considered
to be an inefficient use of resources, as sheen will usually
evaporate or disperse readily. Furthermore, the effects of

USE OF SORBENT MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL RESPONSE

waves and turbulence frequently lead to saturation of the
sorbent boom by water, severely limiting the recovery of oil.
Saturation is more noticeable for boom composed of bulk
loose sorbent material and less so for boom containing
homogeneous continuous material. In addition, the forces
imposed by towing are likely to be too great for most sorbent
booms causing them to tear, with the consequent release of
sorbent material and loss of any contained oil.
Sorbent sheets and pads are even more susceptible to
being blown by the wind than sorbent booms, as they are
not designed for lashing or anchoring and it is impractical to
do so. The large-scale use of sorbent sheets or pads at sea
is not a recommended technique as they can rapidly spread
over a wide area and, although their retrieval is more feasible
than recovery of bulk sorbent, it relies on slow and inefficient
manual recovery. Sheets, pads and other free-floating sorbent
materials stranding on beaches can rapidly become buried
by successive tidal movement of the substrate and can be
difficult to locate subsequently (Figure 13).

Use with other clean-up techniques
Careful management of a response and of response
personnel is required to ensure that the clean-up techniques
employed do not counteract each other. It is important to
remember when using sorbents that the surface tension
of both oil and water can be significantly altered by the
surface active agents present in dispersants. As a result,
the use of dispersants or other spill response chemicals can
interfere with the ability of sorbents to function as designed,
as they can decrease both the oleophilic and hydrophobic
properties, significantly increasing the amount of water and
decreasing the amount of oil recovered. Consequently, to be
used effectively, sorbents should not be employed alongside
dispersants in a response.
Similarly, the use of sorbents is not compatible with the
mechanical recovery of oil with skimmers. Bulk loose sorbent,
sorbent pads and other forms of loose sorbent can block or
severely restrict weirs and pumps, while sorbent boom can
restrict the flow of oil into a skimmer.

Recovery
Unless sorbent is recovered from the water surface, it
becomes as much a pollutant as the oil itself. Loose particles
of bulk sorbent can be blown great distances and may
endanger fauna, primarily through ingestion. In particular,
its use is not recommended near mariculture facilities as it
may be mistakenly identified as fish food.
Recovery of any mixture of oil and sorbent material from the
sea surface presents a number of difficulties. The mixture
may be more viscous and bulky than the oil alone and only
some heavy duty pumps and skimmers would be capable
of dealing with such materials. If the material cannot be
pumped, storage tanks on board recovery vessels will
become redundant, calling for larger on-deck storage.
The use of seine type fishing nets has been attempted in
the recovery of bulk loose sorbent/oil mixtures. However,
problems encountered with the recovery of oil alone, such

TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER 8

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Figure 13: Sorbent pads stranded on a shoreline at high
tide, after deployment at sea. Unless removed quickly, sand
movement during subsequent tides will cover the pads,
hindering recovery.

as clogging and reflective waves, are equally applicable to
this method. The oiled nets will also require recovery, storage
and either cleaning or disposal. Recovery options in these
situations may be limited to inefficient and labour-intensive
scoops or mechanical grabs.
The recovery of sorbent boom, sheets and pads from the
water surface is a similarly time-consuming and labourintensive operation. In particular, the increased weight of
saturated sorbent boom can make hauling-in an arduous task.

Use of sorbents in
‘housekeeping’ and other roles
One of the most common uses of sorbents is to mop up small
spills both on land and on board ships but they also find
significant application in general ‘housekeeping’ functions,
such as improving the safety of workers and preventing
wider contamination. Sorbent mats can be used to minimise
slippery conditions on board recovery craft and at equipment
decontamination points and also at cleaning stations to
separate clean and dirty sides of the operations. Similarly,
sorbent mats are frequently placed at the threshold of ships’
accommodation or command centres onshore to avoid oil
being walked inside. As with all of the above scenarios, the
sorbent should be used to capacity before it is discarded in
order to avoid wastage.
In the mariculture industry, sorbent sheets have been used
successfully to recover floating oil and oil films from the
water surface inside fish cages, where the oiled sheets are
contained and easily recovered. In relatively calm conditions,
sorbent booms can be used to surround the outside of a
fish cage or other sensitive resource to reduce the chance
of contamination. A range of sorbent materials from loose
fibres to inorganic bulk materials have also been used in the
construction of filters designed to prevent oil being carried
into water intakes supplying seawater to a variety of onshore
facilities, such as hatcheries and salt pans.

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Storage, transport and disposal
of used sorbents
Temporary storage and transport of
oiled material
Once recovered, sorbent used at sea will need to be stored
both on-board any collection vessel and then on the shore
prior to final disposal. As saturated sorbent, particularly
boom, is compressed through the weight of further material
placed on top, adsorbed oil may leach out. On-board storage
should, therefore, be enclosed to ensure leachate does not
contaminate decks or gangways rendering them unsafe, or
flow overboard causing recontamination. Oiled sorbent also
needs to be unloaded with care to minimise contamination
of quays and jetties (Figure 14).

5
Figure 14: Oil leaching from a recovered sorbent boom is
a source of secondary contamination.

Oiled debris and material, including sorbents, landed ashore
and collected from the shoreline will usually require temporary
storage while the logistics of transport and disposal are
organised. In a large spill, the amount of material collected
may exceed the capacity of available treatment or disposal
facilities in the local area. The excessive use of sorbent
materials exacerbates this problem (Figure 15) necessitating
a larger temporary storage site which in many parts of the
world would need to be licensed. Prior to transport, as
much free oil as possible is usually removed (Figure 16)
and, ideally, sorbents are compressed to minimise bulk
and optimise transport logistics. Oil and water released as
a result of compressing the sorbents must be recovered
and temporary storage sites should be bunded to prevent
the escape of leachate.

Disposal routes

5
Figure 15: Used sorbent piled in a temporary storage site.
Compression will cause recovered oil to be squeezed from the
boom and care is needed to avoid secondary contamination.

The disposal options available for oiled sorbent materials are
relatively limited when compared with those for recovered
fluid oils. Even small amounts of sorbent material present in
the waste stream can preclude disposal by certain routes,
for example, as a feedstock in refineries.

Reuse
In theory, some types of sorbent can be reused if the oil can
be extracted. This can be achieved either by compression
using a mangle or wringer (as in rope mop skimmer systems),
by centrifuge or by solvent extraction. Compression is
generally the more practical option and is feasible for some
synthetic products. However, the number of reuse cycles
that can be endured before the sorbent material becomes
unusable due to tearing, crushing or general deterioration
should be considered.

5
Figure 16: Recovered sorbent snare hung on a pole to allow
oil to run into a container, thereby minimising the amount
of free oil in the waste.

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Other factors to consider with the reuse of sorbents are
contamination of the waste oil stream from particles of
sorbent detached during compression, the rate of decrease
in adsorption capacity and the percentage of oil that can
be removed with reasonable levels of manpower and
equipment. Nevertheless, some sorbents exhibit an increase
in sorption capability upon repeated reuse, particularly for
more viscous oils.

USE OF SORBENT MATERIALS IN OIL SPILL RESPONSE

Incineration
Burning contaminated sorbent may be a viable option if
the sorbent material is combustible and does not contain
excessive quantities of water. This latter criterion often
excludes the burning of used organic sorbents, as they are
often less selective in the recovery of oil versus water and
may contain too much water. Although incinerators may
be available in the country where an incident occurs, their
capacity is usually matched to domestic demand and they
are likely to be overwhelmed by the sudden influx of the
vast amounts of oily waste typical of a major spill. Of the
different types of incinerator available, rotary kiln and open
hearth furnaces are the most appropriate for large amounts
of solid debris. Large pieces of debris, such as oiled sorbent
booms, will need to be removed from the waste stream and
reduced in size prior to burning.
The high calorific value of synthetic sorbents can make
temperature control of the kiln or furnace difficult, and
blending the oiled sorbents into a waste stream comprising
less combustible materials may be necessary to lower
the feed rate. With complete combustion of synthetic and
organic sorbents, a significant reduction in the volume of
material destined for landfill can be achieved. On the other
hand, incineration of inorganic materials will eliminate the
oil content but will not significantly reduce the volume for
final disposal.
Incineration is normally strictly controlled and high
temperature combustion, together with close monitoring of
exhaust gases, will be required to ensure that toxic dioxins,

PAHs and HCl are not discharged to the atmosphere,
particularly in the case of synthetic sorbents. The cost of
incineration is often considerably higher than other disposal
techniques and this should be taken into account if this
method is selected.

Landfill
Disposal of sorbent material as landfill is also usually
strictly controlled by local or national regulations. In some
countries, oiled sorbent material is treated as a hazardous
waste and the use of designated hazardous material landfill
sites may be required, with consequent increases in the
cost of transport and disposal. Modern sites are usually
enclosed by an impermeable membrane to prevent run-off.
Nevertheless, in parts of the world where such linings are
not regularly used, attention should be given to measures
to prevent contamination of nearby ground and surface
waters.

Biodegradation
Organic sorbent materials generally have the advantage of
being biodegradable. Depending on local waste disposal
regulations and assuming a relatively low oil content, disposal
of organic sorbents by land farming may be permitted.
The oiled sorbent is spread over a large area of land and
biodegradation is allowed to proceed. Degradation may take
a number of years, although faster degradation can often
be achieved by aeration using cultivation equipment and
the application of fertilisers. Composting of certain organic
sorbents may also be a viable disposal route.

Key points
• The large-scale use of sorbents should be strongly discouraged both onshore and at sea
because it generates excessive volumes of oily waste for disposal.
• The use of sorbents can nevertheless be appropriate and effective in certain scenarios,
primarily during shoreline washing operations or where other techniques are not feasible.
• The use of sorbents in the open sea to recover oil from the water is considered a highly
ineffective and inefficient use of resources due to the difficulties of accurately broadcasting
the material onto the oil and, more significantly, its subsequent retrieval once oiled.
• Operations utilising clean-up techniques such as dispersants and skimmers conflict with the
use of sorbents and careful management of the response is necessary to avoid techniques
interfering with each other.
• Sorbents are bulky to store and transport. Storage arrangements must be carefully considered
to prevent damage from rodents, insects, mildew, damp, UV radiation or fire.
• Low-cost, locally available organic or inorganic materials may provide a more cost-effective
option than stockpiled synthetic sorbents, despite a lower recovery efficiency for the same
weight of sorbent material.
• Excessive and inefficient use of sorbent material can lead to secondary contamination and
can create significant logistical and financial issues during the temporary storage, transport
and disposal of oiled material. Consequently the release of sorbents from stockpiles needs
to be controlled and the workforce carefully supervised to avoid these problems.

TECHNICAL INFORMATION PAPER 8

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Aerial Observation of Marine Oil Spills
Fate of Marine Oil Spills
Use of Booms in Oil Pollution Response
Use of Dispersants to Treat Oil Spills
Use of Skimmers in Oil Pollution Response
Recognition of Oil on Shorelines
Clean-up of Oil from Shorelines
Use of Sorbent Materials in Oil Spill
Response
Disposal of Oil and Debris
Leadership, Command & Management of
Oil Spills
Effects of Oil Pollution on Fisheries and
Mariculture
Effects of Oil Pollution on Social and
Economic Activities
Effects of Oil Pollution on the Environment
Sampling and Monitoring of Marine Oil Spills
Preparation and Submission of Claims from
Oil Pollution
Contingency Planning for Marine Oil Spills
Response to Marine Chemical Incidents

ITOPF is a not-for-profit organisation established on behalf of the world’s shipowners and their insurers to promote effective
response to marine spills of oil, chemicals and other hazardous substances. Technical services include emergency response,
advice on clean-up techniques, pollution damage assessment, assistance with spill response planning and the provision of
training. ITOPF is a source of comprehensive information on marine oil pollution and this paper is one of a series based on
the experience of ITOPF’s technical staff. Information in this paper may be reproduced with the prior express permission of
ITOPF. For further information please contact:

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