Separating oil from water

Ahmed Shatil Alam writes about an innovation that can possibly solve oil spillage issues in Bangladesh

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It was the first week of December in 2014, when winter had just arrived in Bangladesh. The tourist guides and other professionals related to tourism were harbouring hope that local and foreign visitors will visit Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in world, soon. But these hopes were dashed by the oil-spilling incident.

The incident, that later put the biodiversity of the forest area in danger, took place on December 9, as an oil tanker carrying about 3.5 lakh litres of furnace oil  over the Shela river, sank after it was hit by another vessel. All the oil spilled into the river.

After that while the government was criticised for its decision to allow marine vehicles on these rivers for business purposes, the local and international community became concerned about tackling the oil spilled into the Sundarban and from spreading to other water bodies nearby.

At the time, Faruq Bin Hossain, a researcher from Bangladesh, was also concerned by the incident. He began to think of a way through which this oil spilling issue can be tackled.

Hossain, who has been working as a researcher with Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute since 2006, says, ‘It was so frustrating for me, being an admirer of Sundarban. My frustrations were doubled when I came to know that our country does not have any mechanism through which the oil can be separated from the water.’

Actually, the Environment ministry and other departments were waiting for the oil to be absorbed by the water automatically. But this would also affect the biodiversity in the area, including the Irrawady Dolphins, says Hossain.

That was the moment, when Hossain planned to make a system or mechanism that can suck out the oil from the water and save the living organisms in it. After five days of diligent attempts in his research room- a small room at his house where he used to work with his ideas, he made a prototype of an oil separator machine.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Hossain shares that the prototype of the machine, that was built and tested a few days after the incident, was made from cork-sheets. It had two parts-a sucker machine that could suck up the oil and some water that contains the oil with a motor. The second part of the machine consisted of a reservoir with a valve that contains the reserved oil-water liquid.

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In two steps, the machine separates the oil from the water. ‘At first, the valve needs to be opened through which the water will be separated and then the oil can be stored in a pot for further use,’ he explains.

The machine, of five by three feets and which runs on a battery, was tested at the BARI, when it sucked out oil from water at a rate of 250 litres in every hour. ‘If the machine was made with steel that could be run by a three horse-power diesel engine, it could suck more oil from water every hour,’ claims Hossain.

According to him, if a machine can be made with a length of 20 feet and essentially functions in this way, it can separate around 50,000 litres of oil from water per hour. To make it more successful, the researcher advised that oil-mixed water be separated by a rubber-made dam before using the separator machine.

The prototype costs only Tk 5,000, while a steel made machine of 100 feet in length can cost around Tk 1.5 lakh, which will be able to work five times more than a 20 feet machine. He also claimed that as the machine does not change the oil’s chemical mechanism, the separated oil can be used later after refining.

The researcher, who had graduated from Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University in Dhaka, has also claimed that by making and using such a machine, which he claims is the first of its kind in the world, Bangladesh government can tackle similar incidents in a more cost-effective manner.