A tool able to get anything from any bottom

A tool able to get anything from any bottom

TSU biologists, based on the law of physics, have created a unique water treatment technology.

Oil leakage is one of the urgent environmental problems on the planet and all oil producers in the world face this problem. The consequences of the emergency spillage are most often limited to the collection of mobile oil from the water surface. However, more than half of heavy hydrocarbons have been sinking to the bottom and poisoning water ecosystems for decades. The scientists of the Biological Institute of TSU developed a breakthrough technology called the airprobe, which cleans the bottom of reservoirs from oil without any chemicals and soil excavation. The first object that TSU biologists “brought back to life” was Lake Schuchye in the Subarctic where there was an oil spill listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest oil spill on earth. 

Not a pike tale 

One of the largest accidents in the history of oil production that happened in the Komi Republic in the early 1990s fostered the development of this unique technology. Then, as stated by the official sources, 14 thousand tons of crude oil spilled out of the pipeline, and, according to the unofficial data, over 100 thousand tons. The accident associated with the largest oil spill on earth was included in the Guinness Book of Records. One of the water bodies affected by hydrocarbon pollution was Lake Schuchye. 

“A few years after the accident in the Subarctic the local public and the media talked about mutant pikes with ugly jaws”, says Danila Vorobyov, director of the TSU Biological Institute. “At that time the Komirybvod Company, which monitored water resources, appealed for help to Priborservice, and they asked the Biological Institute to do some studies in Lake Schuchye. Indeed, when we took samples of the fish fauna there, we did find fish with a shortened lower jaw, but it was a morphological change, rather than a genetic mutation. As expected, we found some oil at the bottom of the lake”. 

Due to the harsh climatic conditions of the Subarctic, its degradation was slower than in a region with a longer warm period. The lake required treatment, but there were no treatment technologies that would clean the bottom from oil at great depths. The methods that were used in Russia and in the world were either excavating soil for its subsequent treatment, or used chemicals that are dangerous for natural sites and thus cannot be used. There was obviously a need for a new approach that would solve the problem of Lake Schuchye and other polluted reservoirs. 

“We created a team of scientists and engineers”, Danil continues. “We considered a variety of options, including partial pumping of water and even complete drainage of the reservoir with the reclamation of the bottom with the subsequent water admission. However, this option was too labor-intensive, and the local landscape was not suitable for this. We had to somehow get oil from the lake without sinking to the bottom. Someone came up with the idea to do this by flotation using air bubbles. There was no equipment for this, but there was a brilliant idea. We had to create a contactless treatment device from scratch. Later in 2011 we called it the airprobe”. 

The new equipment was first tested on Lake Schuchye, and then it was used for the full treatment of the lake. In total, 157 tons of oil was taken from the bottom of the reservoir. Over the next few years, TSU biologists monitored the lake: they took the samples of water, fish fauna, bottom sediments and hydrobionts – organisms that live at the bottom and act as the bioindicators of the ecosystem. Ten years after, the ecosystem of the lake has almost completely recovered, which was confirmed by laboratory tests and the complete restoration of morphology of its inhabitants. 

Oil-covered secrets 

The first experience using the airprobe showed its promising future. But it was quite difficult to promote it on the market. The main barrier was that despite the need to eliminate the consequences of accidents, oil companies prefer not to advertise such things. It is more profitable for many natural resource users to hide the problem and avoid reputational risks and financial losses. 

Nevertheless, TSU scientists found a partner interested in using innovative approaches to improve the environmental situation. That was Samotlorneftegaz, one of the largest oil producers within Rosneft Company. In 2017-2018 the scientists together with experts of the company conducted pilot tests of the airprobe on the lake with “historical” pollution in the Nizhnevartovsky District of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District. 

One of the main tasks of the pilot tests was to improve the technology, i.e., to select such algorithms that would make it possible to utilize the maximum amount of hydrocarbons raised from the bottom. Such algorithms are used in hard-to-reach facilities, where it is difficult to transport the hydrocarbons. 

After remediation of the 1.2 hectare lake, a second survey showed that the new technology reduced the oil content in its bottom sediments by 50 times. This initiated the self-restoration of the lake.

In 2019, the joint project of TSU and Samotlorneftegaz was presented at several specialized competitions and was highly acknowledged by Russian and international colleagues. So, the project joined the top three finalists of the prestigious competition of the Russian Geographical Society and became the winner of the international project “Ecological Culture. Peace and Harmony” in the nomination “Conservation of Natural Complexes and Biodiversity”. 

Make chances the opportunities 

It is difficult to promote domestic technologies in the domestic market, and if the new approach is associated with the impact on nature, it is even more difficult. In order for the airprobe to get the green light and be used on the territory of oil-producing regions, it required a state certification. In 2019, Russia did not have a single technology for assessing, mapping and cleaning oil-contaminated bottom sediments, which would receive a positive conclusion of the expert committee. The airprobe was the first to receive a quality label from Rosprirodnadzor. Numerous pilot tests conducted at several water bodies in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District made it possible to prove that the technology created by TSU scientists is not only effective, but also safe. 

It is worth noting that the certificate issued by Rosprirodnadzor for the airprobe technology has not expiration date. As of 2022 this technology is still the only one in Russia with this quality label. It is critical for the cooperation with oil producers.  

“The conclusion issued by Rosprirodnadzor gave us the opportunity to expand cooperation with numerous oil companies”, explains Danil Vorobyov. “Today our technology is quite popular. This is due to the fact that Russia is actively producing hydrocarbons. Besides, there are many water bodies with “historical” pollution. Oil-contaminated water bodies were almost not treated in the Soviet years, when there was a massive development of oil fields, many of which resulted in oil leaks”. 

Scientists began to work on its liquidation together with Lukoil-Komi operating on the territory of the Komi Republic and the Nenets Autonomous District. The first experience of working together with future partners was acquired during the treatment of Lake Schuchye. In 2020, the oil production company and TSU signed a cooperation agreement on environmental safety of water bodies in the oil and gas regions of the Subarctic and its adjacent territories. 

In 2021, scientists with the help of the airprobe cleaned the first large object – a five-kilometer section of the Small Voyvozh watercourse (a tributary of the Yarega River). As a result, the concentration of oil in bottom sediments was reduced by 65 times. 

Window to Europe, Asia and America 

In 2019, in parallel with the promotion of the airprobe in the Russian market, the developers were trying to promote the technology abroad. 

“We understood that besides its efficiency the airprobe is eco-friendly. Green technologies are appreciated in Europe, but it is very difficult to find a way into this tight market”, says Andrei Trifonov, engineer of the airprobe project. “Therefore, we decided to try our tool at a site that is not very famous in Russia, but quite popular in the EU – the so-called Commercialization Reactor. This site has been successfully promoting high-tech startups in Europe for about 15 years”. 

One of the first steps for participants is traditionally the Ignition Event, which is a partner selection event that takes place every six months in Riga. The scientists present their projects and can receive not only an expert assessment, but also an offer from potential partners – entrepreneurs ready to promote a new product or technology in Europe. 

The airprobe successfully passed the test at first attempt. Then the scientists created a team to promote the development of TSU. For the same purpose, at the end of 2019, a small enterprise PurOceans Technology was created in Latvia with the support of the Commercialization Reactor. 

In 2021, the airprobe was tested in the seaports of Latvia and Lithuania. A number of potential customers showed interest in the technology, including ports in the cities of Liepaja, Malmö, Copenhagen, several ports from Germany, Norway and Portugal. The need for the use of the airprobe was announced by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Peru, and TSU signed a preliminary cooperation agreement. TSU started to promote the technology in the countries of Southeast Asia with active hydrocarbon production. 

Bacteria for the benefit of biologists 

Despite the high efficiency of the airprobe, which makes it possible to reduce the concentration of oil in the bottom sediments of water bodies by ten times, the biologists decided to achieve the maximum possible treatment efficiency. The scientists of the Biological Institute, together with partners from the Darwin Group of Companies, created a new tool called the Aborigen biologics. Once the major pollution is liquidated, the tool ensures “fine” additional treatment of oil-contaminated bottom sediments and soil. 

In the summer of 2021, the new biologics was first used in the Subarctic as part of a joint project with LUKOIL-Komi. 

“Hydrocarbon-oxidizing bacteria were taken from natural environments – oil-contaminated bottom sediments and soil”, says Julia Frank, Head of the Laboratory of Industrial Microbiology at TSU. “Adapted microorganisms populate such environments because they find nutrition there. But in nature, they are in an amount insufficient for fast treatment. Together with the colleagues from the Darwin Group of Companies, we made an agent with a high concentration of colony-forming units of such bacteria. All microorganisms were taken in northern regions and are therefore resistant to severe climatic conditions”. 

The oil-fed bacteria are concentrated and placed on polymer substrates. Due to the fact that oil oxidizing microorganisms are in an attached state on the surface and inside the porous material, this tool can be used not only for lakes, but also for flowing water bodies. 

The product created by TSU biologists is suitable for both water and contaminated soil. A consortium of hydrocarbon-oxidizing bacteria was tested as part of field tests conducted in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District. The experiment covered at eight sites located in the territory of oil and gas production. The total content of petroleum products in the soil was reduced 12 times over three months. 

Tidy up your planet 

The airprobe technology created at the TSU Biological Institute turned out to be effective not only due to the treatment of bottom sediments from oil, but also to address the plastic pollution of water bodies. 

“Plastic today is present everywhere”, says the director of the Biological Institute Danil Vorobyov. “Moreover, the results of a large transarctic cruise made by the Russian scientists led by Professor Alexey Orlov showed that macroplastics is also found in uninhabited places, for example, in the Kara and Chukchi Seas. 

According to biologists, synthetic material found on the surface of water bodies is not very difficult to clean – it can be easily collected. If neglected, plastic biofouling and the inclusion of mineral particles may occur over time, i.e., the plastics acquires negative buoyancy and settles to the bottom, where it breaks down into microplastics and decomposes releasing toxic substances. 

In 2019, the airprobe technology was tested on plastic in laboratory conditions. The tests confirmed the ability of the airprobe to extract contaminants from bottom sediments. It turned out that the airprobe works well in any conditions. Under hydropneumatic influence, mineral particles are separated from plastics, which the material acquires in water, buoyancy becomes positive, polluting components rise to the surface of the reservoir. Thus, the technology created to clean the oil-contaminated bottom sediments can be used as an inexpensive and effective tool able to solve the problem of plastic pollution. In 2022, Vietnam was interested in this tool to solve their “plastic” problem. 

Humanity has already realized that one of the global threats is the depletion of natural resources and pollution. The needs of the population are ever more difficult to fit into the capabilities of the planet. The development of TSU scientists makes it possible to solve this problem and reduce the human anthropogenic burden on the environment, restore water and soil ecosystems in the interests of future generations. In the near future, the scientists intend to continue their studies and use their findings to create new products and technologies to restore the natural ecosystems. 

TSU Biological Institute has more than 25 patents for technologies, devices and products intended for the treatment of natural objects from petroleum products. Besides, the institute is the leader in Russia in creating such tools. 

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin praised the development of TSU scientists.