By Wileen Wong Kromhout

As fate would have it, when the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded last April, causing the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, UCLA Engineering’s Eric M.V. Hoek was celebrating a feat achieved at UCLA just a week before.

Hoek, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, had been working for the previous eight months on refining a cutting-edge technology designed to separate crude oil from water.

One week before all eyes in the nation were drawn to the oil-streaked waters off the Louisiana coast, Hoek and his team at UCLA were able to improve the ability of a high-tech, liquid-to-liquid centrifugal separator to remove enough oil to achieve a water purity level of up to 99.99 percent.

The timing couldn’t have been more critical for the people who had put their hearts, hope and money into a project that started in 1993 when actor Kevin Costner purchased a patent from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory that eventually led to the development of a centrifuge now produced by CINC Industries Inc. of Carson City, Nev.

“Partly in response to the Exxon Valdez, I resolved to commit personal resources to engineer a product that would be effective in cleaning up oil spills,” Costner told the House Science and Technology Committee at a June 9 hearing. “Like fire extinguishers, oil-water separators could be stationed on every boat, harbor and port where oil was present. I envisioned the machine as a safety device — compact and portable enough that it could be deployed on a small craft, and rugged enough to operate reliably in rough seas. The CINC oil-water separator can do all this.”

Patent in hand, Costner hired researchers, invested more than $20 million in the company and spent the next 15 years improving and refining the centrifuges and trying to garner interest in the technology from oil companies. At the time, not only were oil companies not interested, but government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard often blocked the technology from being tested because of concerns over water purity.

Hoping to change all that, Costner and his business partner, Patrick Smith, asked Hoek to evaluate the technology.

“Since Kevin had such a hard time getting his oil-water separator accepted by the oil industry and government officials responsible for oil spill cleanup, we started out looking at different applications — like treating ‘produced water,’ which is the oily and often brackish water that comes up during oil and gas production,” said Hoek.

Working with a laboratory-scale version of the centrifuge, Hoek and his team learned how to optimize the device, which utilizes the force generated by rotating an object around a central axis. By spinning two fluids of different densities within a rotating container, heavier liquids are forced to the exterior walls of the rotor while lighter fluids are forced to the center. A novel collection system at the top of the spinning chamber extracts oil and water through separate outlets.

“The machines were basically sophisticated centrifuge devices that can handle a huge volume of water and separate at unprecedented rates,” said John Houghtaling of Ocean Therapy Solutions, the company formed by Costner, Smith and some local Louisiana businessmen to market and deploy the CINC centrifuges in connection with oil cleanup in the Gulf. “They were initially developed from older centrifuge technology. Normal centrifuge machines are very slow and sensitive to different ratios of oil to water mixtures at intake.”

In contrast, the largest of the CINC units can now clean water at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. That means one such centrifuge, which can be taken into the spill area by barge, can clean up 210,000 gallons of polluted water per day. Once separation has occurred, the oil is stored in tanks, and the water is considered clean enough to be returned to the ocean.

Almost immediately after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, Hoek called together his team of students and postdoctoral scholars “to all pitch in and lend a hand. The team worked diligently day and night for more than a week to figure out how well the centrifuge could separate oil from seawater. It worked great in the lab, but no one really had any idea how it would work in the gulf.”

Two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon platform sunk, Hoek was in New Orleans demonstrating the centrifuge as part of Costner’s team. “No one had ever attempted to do something like this before. The demo went well, but we had to conduct a number of field trials over the next month with BP to learn how to overcome the variable conditions of the oil and to cope with various health and safety issues for the operators.”

Following rigorous testing, BP, impressed with the capabilities of the centrifugal separator, decided by mid-June to lease and deploy 32 devices through OTS. Due to the time required to produce the centrifuges and to modify and outfit the barges and supply vessels, OTS has so far deployed 21 centrifuge systems on six oil spill recovery vessels in the gulf at the time of this posting.

The system developed by Hoek and OTS team partners in the gulf actually went beyond just using the centrifuge on oil spill recovery vessels. The centrifuge was combined with state-of-the-art booming and skimming equipment as well as membrane technology to enhance recovery efforts to further protect the environment, OTS officials said.

“It has been very exciting to be a part of this project,” Hoek said. “While I would be much happier if the spill had never happened, it did. While this was a team effort, I can honestly say I played a part in the overall response to one of our country’s worst environmental disasters. It was great to work with Kevin, Pat and people from the local engineering and offshore service companies. There was a real passion to save the gulf by everyone involved, and I worked with a lot of good-hearted, no-nonsense, talented people.”

Hoek will continue working with OTS in connection with the oil spill cleanup and “first response” capabilities should future oil spills occur anywhere in the country. He’ll also continue to work with Costner, Smith and others, including a company known as Blue Planet Solutions, in connection with efforts to utilize the centrifuge and related technology in oil-water separation applications. Hoek has been invited to participate in many government and industry workshops and conferences to discuss his involvement with the gulf oil spill.

“I have lived with a level of frustration over the past several years that would be hard to explain, knowing that a solution to this everyday occurrence and the technology to combat it was sitting on the shelf,” Costner said. “I can only say now that my disappointment is matched by my enthusiasm, and I feel fortunate to have taken on partners like Pat Smith and Eric Hoek.

“Eric, in particular, has brought an energy and scientific approach to the problem that the industry will be able to enjoy in the future,” Costner said. “He has been a champion of the technology and a champion of the environment and the people it was designed to protect. I thank him and UCLA for moving this dream of protection forward.”