NTNU student entrepreneurs have joined up with an inventor from SINTEF to commercialize a new, green method for cleaning up oil spills.
While the media generally only picks up on big catastrophes, like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, many other spills occur. There were 40 smaller maritime oils spills in Norway alone during the course of last year.
The current standard cleanup method uses chemicals to disperse the oil into small enough particles for natural bacteria in the ocean to be able to digest.
However, research on this process shows that the chemicals can actually slow or stop the breakdown process, and adding unnatural chemicals to delicate ecosystems is less than optimal.
“We really don’t know enough about how these chemicals affect the microbial ecosystems in our oceans, and there is some discussion as to whether these compounds prevent bacteria from being able to properly break down the oil,” says Anette Andersen of ChemFree, a new startup created by Andersen and two other students from NTNU’s School of Entrepreneurship.
As its name suggests, ChemFree does not rely on unwanted chemicals for cleanup. The technology involves spraying sea water into an oil spill with enough force to disperse the oil in tiny particles, allowing it to be properly broken down by ocean bacteria. Think of it like a giant high pressure washer.
Lab tests show that this method actually disperses smaller particles than chemical methods do, meaning that it is even easier for the ocean’s bacteria to do its work.
Andersen, and her colleagues Nina Heir and Karl Nevland, have spent three years in different study programs at NTNU, and then started a year ago in the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship’s two-year master’s program. Their goal with ChemFree is to have created a workplace for themselves by the time they finish their master’s degrees.
The man behind the original idea is Stein Erik Sørstrøm, who works at SINTEF, where the technology is in development. ChemFree is patented, and the rights to it will be transferred from SINTEF TTO (SINTEF’s commercialization arm) to ChemFree as soon as the new company is up and running.
The team has had good results during lab tests of the technology. The next step is to test the technology at full scale, using a prototype that is currently being developed. It will be tested this autumn.
ChemFree won the prize for best international contribution, as well as the prize for best master’s project in the international finals of Green Challenge in Copenhagen earlier this summer.
“Monetary prizes like this are incredibly valuable for a startup company. Previously, we’ve received aid from Spark and Trønderenergi, which has allowed us to travel around the world and meet with potential future clients. Meetings like this could easily be a deciding factor of our company’s success,” says Heir.
The students’ project won third place in the Norwegian Climate LaunchPad finals, which were arranged at NTNU in May.
As part of their entrepreneurship studies, Heir and Nevland spent three months at Boston University, where they were able to establish important contacts within the oil cleanup industry in the U.S. and Canada.