Intelligent Technologies for the Detection of Hydrocarbons in the Maritime Environment

Project location: SPAIN
Project start date: February 2004 - Project end date: January 2006
Project number: 2003-62
Beneficiary: FundaciĆ²n Arao

The Nando Peretti Foundation and the Fundación Arao are co financing a project called "Intelligent Technologies for the Detection of hydrocarbons in the maritime environment" to find an adequate solution to the problem of the environmental disaster caused by the oil tank Prestige. The project is coordinated by the Fundación Arao ( and carried out by five international research centres: the University of Santiago de Compostella, the University of A Coruna, the University of Naples Federico II, the Spanish Scientific Research Council and the University Politecnico of Madrid.

all pictures by Antonio Nodar

The project is of major importance, not only because it finds a solution for the problem in Galicia, but also because it creates the condition for effective interventions in future similar cases of occurring disasters. Until today just rudimentary methods to "clean" the sea from oil contamination are being used, which remove only the oil slicks from the surface, ignoring the sunken ones that cause enormous damage in the sea environment. This because at present there is no tool available on the market to clean in depth. The idea isto find a method that allows to clean perfectly and rapidly the sea, and such method is the combination of two existing techniques of oil slick detection: the radar and the fluorescence.

The first method: The radar (from airplanes or satellites) detects the oil slicks in the sea even when it\'s cloudy or dark. It is also capable of saying how thick and how wide the slicks are. But it tracks only superficial slicks, unable of detecting the sunken ones that are killers for the sea flora and fauna. Till today the radar taken pictures are the only tool used. Governments buy them from the European Space Agency. Even these are not always precise, as for example, images taken in presence of a strong wind may show on the surface of the sea the presence of oil, where there is none, or make believe there is a slick, when instead there is only a shoal of fishes.

The second method: Fluorescence is a phenomenon by which certain materials react to a luminous stimulus with another emission of light in a wavelength level greater than of the original. If the material impacted by the radiation provides an appreciable fluorescence, as is the case with hydrocarbons, the spectrum of frequencies and the timing of the decline of the fluorescence are unmistakable characteristics of the nature of the material. This method allows to spot slicks even in the abyss. The problem is that there are no fluorescence sensors on the market and they cannot be used from satellites.

Conclusion: both methods alone are incomplete, and the aim of the project is to improve them and then use them combined.

In first place a computer to analyze the data coming from the radar is needed. A computer with a special program to exactly interpret the data that the satellite radar of the European Space Agency sends to the University de A Coruna. This computer is connected to a wet basin, a sort of large pool, built inside the University of Santiago de Compostella that simulates the sea conditions in the portion photographed by the radar, and gives the exact information whether the supposed slick is oil or not. At this stage, the data coming from the radar will be correct, but only for floating slicks. In second place, a fluorometer will have to be produced and positioned on boats that will survey the contaminated area. The data of the fluorometer will be sent to the computer and combined with the data from the radar.

Merging the two results, a final precise picture of where the oil is will be made available, to allow a more successful and efficient removal of it with the appropriate machines.

all pictures by Antonio Nodar

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