Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

National Facility Tests Next Generation of Oil Spill Response Technology

Ohmsett's saltwater test tank mimics real-world environment

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

When it comes to oil spill recovery, the Ohmsett facility is at the forefront of new innovations. “Anything that you would see related to oil spill response on water, we most likely either tested it or have done research and development here related to it,” said Dave DeVitis, test director and engineer. The Ohmsett facility, located at the Naval Weapons Station Earle Waterfront in Leonardo, NJ is a national venue for government agencies, academia, and industry teams to test newly developed oil spill containment and clean-up equipment and techniques.

Ohmsett is equipped with a variety of heavy-duty equipment that enables teams to test their new equipment and techniques in a controlled setting, with the ability to customize elements of the environment for precise results. Examples of these customizable test parameters include sea conditions (wave height, length, and period), tow speed, meteorological data, water temperature and salinity, volume of oil, and more. Testing is done in the Ohmsett tank, which is one of the largest of its kind. The concrete structure measures 670 feet
long, 65 feet wide, and is filled with eight feet of clear saltwater. Although similar tanks that are comparable or larger in size exist, this is the only one in the nation with towing and wave-generating capabilities. It’s also the only facility that can replicate real oil spills within a controlled environment.

“There are always challenges because it’s a very complex system, and There are a lot of moving parts,” said Len Zabilansky, facility manager at Ohmsett. Aside from the regular maintenance and upkeep of the tank, the system requires a team of certified staff who are required to understand the chemistry of different types of oil and how the oil will respond to waves and fresh water vs. saltwater. Although having saltwater in the tank is one of the factors that sets Ohmsett apart, it can also create challenges.

“Corrosion is always an issue for us,” said DeVitis. But the staff takes numerous preventative measures to combat any potential issues. One of their larger maintenance projects occurs approximately every five years, and requires removal of all the water from the test basin. The team then recoats the interior of the basin, replaces all integral seals, and works on any subsurface equipment that may need attention. “It’s a large-scale maintenance action, comparable to what you would do to a ship,” explained DeVitis.

“We want to be forward-leaning and make sure we get ahead of it,” added Zabilansky.

Real-world conditions, real-time data

Without the Ohmsett facility, manufacturers would not be able to test their new designs and protypes against realworld conditions, and researchers could not acquire realtime data analysis that provides insight into the redesign of more effective tools for future oil spills. Researchers are also able to utilize the facility to study oil behavior, pumping strategies, chemical dispersants, and other factors that affect oil spill recovery efforts. “Our facility has proven to be the ideal facility for testing and analyzing the practical effectiveness of equipment such as booms, skimmers, sorbents, temporary storage devices, pumping systems, and remote sensing devices,” the facility’s site reads.

In field tests, researchers don’t have the luxury of controlling the test conditions, or of even using real oil. At Ohmsett, researchers get accurate and reliable results and can use full-size equipment, eliminating the hassle of building scale models for testing. To test if new equipment or technologies are going to be effective in the field, DeVitis and others at Ohmsett develop rigorous test protocols that are unique to the system being tested. For example, they need to consider where the equipment could potentially be deployed—whether it’s open ocean, a river, or lake—and whether they anticipate using the equipment for diesel or fuel oil vs. crude oil, for example. Environmental factors combined with the type of oil spilled can determine what equipment will be most effective. “In some cases, there are ASTM standards that are employed for the testing method itself, in which you quantify the performance of the system given a defined set of parameters as per ASTM,” explained DeVitis.

The facility also offers oil spill response training for responders to become familiar with new equipment, so that in the event of an emergency, they will know what tool is best for that particular response. Members of the US Coast Guard frequently take advantage of this training, but regulators and those in industry also attend to experience what it would be like out in the field during a response effort, and to obtain a basic knowledge of the containment and clean-up work and what it entails.

Renewable energy testing

In addition to oil spill recovery testing and research, the facility also acts as a venue for testing wave and current energy systems. The Ohmsett tank can simulate ocean current flow and has three movable bridges with tow speeds of up to six knots, which are programmable to 1/100th knot increments. According to Ohmsett, the tow bridges are able to accommodate the torque and forces of the largest current turbines and wave energy converter (WEC) equipment. Data is collected from various sensors and video cameras for synthesis and analysis. Some of the on-site sensors and instrumentation include wave height altimeters, pressure transducers, in-situ fluorometery, surface thermal imaging, and more. The facility offers additional support through a machine shop that can provide fabrication and welding services, and ample work space to prep and modify test equipment. An on-site chemistry lab and complete meteorological station are also at researchers’ disposal.

“We look at this facility as the UL [Unbiased Laboratory] of the oil industry. The facility has evolved from the boom and skimmer days when the EPA operated it, to now being able to test and evaluate basically all types of remediation equipment and techniques that are used for oil spill response,” said DeVitis. Looking long-term, Zabilansky and DeVitis envision the facility expanding its capabilities even further to become an international center of excellence. Future initiatives will focus on improving the flexibility of the facility’s systems, so that they can accommodate a wider spectrum of testing than is done currently. “Wherever the industry goes, we’ll always try to be ahead of it,” said Zabilansky.


Staff provides independent objective performance testing of innovative spill recovery technologies in a simulated marine environment with real oil Staff experiments with various test methods and sorbent materials to quantify performance characteristics of sorbent products
An aerial view of the Ohmsett facilityAll photos courtesy of Ohmsett