Extracting Fuel from Sunken Ships

A new system to reduce the impact of environmental disasters

While ships carry various cargo, they all carry fuel. In the event of a shipwreck, this fuel typically leaks into the water and creates an environmental disaster.

To reduce the fuel leakage caused by shipwrecks, MARIN, the Marine Research Institute Netherlands, and the EU Commission have created a system to capture fuel before it leaks into the ocean.

DIFIS, as it’s known by its creators, is a light weight, quickly deployable flexible structure that can hover above a shipwreck for an indefinite amount of time, hoovering up any pollutants that might still be aboard the sunken vessel. Consisting of a funnel, a riser tube and a buffer bell, the DIFIS is the most effective way that I’ve seen to extract oil from a sunken ship.

In practice DIFIS would be deployed once a reported shipwreck’s location was identified and the sea floor was mapped. From there concrete anchor blocks would be placed in a circle around the wreck.  Once in place, the DIFIS’ dome would be lowered into position. After the funnel is attached to the anchor blocks, the remaining riser tubes would be connected to the funnel which would in turn be attached to the  collection reservoir. To avoid spilling collected oil on the ocean’s turbulent surface, DIFIS’ buffer bell would buoy itself some 30-50m below the surface. Shuttle tankers could then pump the collected oil from the buffer bell, ferrying the toxic contents to a safe location onshore.

After installation, DIFIS is a standalone system capable of collecting all of the pollutants trapped in a shipwreck without any human assistance. According to the EU Commission, “In rigorous testing of the DIFIS system, no unexpected behavior was observed during operational conditions… The overall behavior of the DIFIS system during offloading also met with expectations.”

While neither the EU nor MARIN have set a time table for when the DIFIS system would be available for cleanup missions, quick deployment must be a top priority for engineers in the EU. Winter is coming, and the Northern Seas have never been that friendly to sailors. 

Image Courtesy of MARIN, EU Commision