Oil Spills: Innovative cleanup methods

Oil spills are events with catastrophic impacts on the oceans and marine life. Despite a global increase in maritime trade, the average number of oil spills has been decreasing annually. According to Statista, oil spills reached an average of 24.5 spills per year during the 1970-1979 period, this number fell to 1.8 for the 2010-2019 period. However, when a single event can have such a disastrous impact, this number is still too high. Notably, in 2023, a single oil spill resulted in the release of 700 metric tons of oil, the economic impact of such a medium-large spill can cost upwards of $9.4 billion. This number stings even more when the fact is that 60% of spills are preventable.

Trends of oil spills


The Deepwater Horizon incident

The largest US oil spill and second biggest in the world was authored by BP, in 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico. After a six-year study, a team of scientists quantified the aftermath:

  • The spill lasted 87 consecutive days
  • 134M gallons spilled (that’s the equivalent of the volume of all the bathtubs in the US)
  • 11 crewmen killed
  • 65k turtles killed
  • 25k jobs lost
  • $17.2 billion in damages


How do spills occur

Oil is mostly transported by tankers via maritime routes whenever distances cannot be reached by pipelines. According to Statista, 32% of the largest oil spills of the past decades were attributed to grounding, when the vessel unintentionally touched the seabed.

However, when the spill occurs other factors can worsen the impact such as: live monitoring capabilities are not always in place, gauging volumes spilled and its movement may delay a rapid reaction. Moreover, stakeholders may not always be prepared and coordinated in the emergency.




The impact of oil spills extends far beyond the immediate aftermath, with lasting detrimental effects on biodiversity and ecosystems. For example, the BP disaster did not only kill 65 thousand turtles in 2010, it also affected up to 4 times more of the entire turtle population that was in migration for breeding. Spills have a true snowball effect: the presence of oil on the water's surface impedes the exchange of gasses and light, crucially affecting seagrass, which serves as vital habitat and breeding grounds for fish, marine birds, crabs, and shrimps. This contamination spreads through the food chain, poisoning marine organisms and ultimately affecting human health as well. Furthermore, oil spills can cause seabirds to drown by impairing their ability to fly when their feathers become coated with oil. The toxic fumes from the oil can also harm the respiratory and reproductive systems of turtles, seabirds, and dolphins.


Physical contamination from oil spills significantly disrupts fishing and mariculture, threatening marine stocks and undermining food security. The operational integrity of shipyards, ports, harbors, and the traffic that navigates through these areas also suffers. Furthermore, businesses reliant on seawater, like salt production, experience adverse effects, additionally, in certain areas tourism levels may be at risk. As aforementioned oil spills come with a substantial financial cost, encompassing not only the restoration of affected biodiversity and habitats but also compensation for impacted stakeholders. Additionally, investments are necessary to minimize the risk of future incidents and enhance preparedness. Allocating resources towards prevention and the rapid, effective cleanup of spills offers the greatest potential for both environmental preservation and economic benefits.


The clean up


How are they cleaned up currently

When oil comes into contact with seawater, it undergoes several degradation phases, each affecting aquatic life in various ways. This process starts with the creation of a surface plume, then proceeds through evaporation, dispersion, and ultimately biodegradation. Factors such as the water's salinity, the oil's composition, and environmental conditions like wind, weather, tides, and temperature play a crucial role in the degradation speed of oil. In certain environments, oil may take years or even decades to break down.
The efficiency of an emergency response team's intervention in an oil spill is influenced by several variables, including the time it takes for the team to arrive on the scene, as well as waves, currents, and weather conditions. These elements influence the chosen cleanup method, but current methods are largely inefficient and unsustainable.


Method Description Pros Cons
Shoreline Flushing Uses water to remove or refloat stranded oil for easier recovery. Minimizes physical damage to the shoreline.

Effective for slick recovery.

Risk of causing more harm with improper pressure or temperature.
Booms Long, floating barriers used to prevent oil from reaching the beach or to collect it in waters. Can protect large areas of shoreline.

Reusable in some cases.

Can be ineffective in rough waters.

Requires maintenance and monitoring.

Vacuums Industrial vacuums suction oil from the beach or shoreline vegetation. Directly removes oil from affected areas.

Quick deployment.

May not be effective for all oil types.

Can harm sensitive shoreline areas.

Sorbents Specialized materials designed to absorb oil but not water. Highly effective at oil absorption.

Versatile in application.

Require large quantities.

Potential for additional environmental damage.

Disposal of used sorbents can be problematic.

Shoreline Cleaners and Bioremediation Agents Chemical cleaners and agents that either lift oil from surfaces or accelerate natural degradation.  Can effectively treat areas not suitable for physical methods.

Eco-friendly options available.

Chemical use concerns.

Special approval is often needed.

Burning Controlled burns of oil on water's surface or marsh vegetation. Quickly reduces oil volume.

Can be effective in remote areas.

Air quality and carbon emissions concerns.

Risk of uncontrolled spread.

Manual Recovery Using hand tools to remove oil from shorelines.  Allows access to difficult areas.

Low tech and low cost.

Extremely labor-intensive.

Limited to small areas or volumes of oil.

Mechanical Removal Heavy machinery used to remove bulk oiled materials from accessible shorelines. Efficient for large amounts of material.

Fast compared to manual.

Potential for additional environmental damage.

Requires accessible shorelines.

*Table inspired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Novel solutions



Oil spill cleaning startups are currently valued at over $1B and have been since 2022. Interestingly, close to all value stems from companies created between 2015 and 2020, hence companies took at least 5 years to react from the BP Horizon incident.

On the other hand, nearly no funding has been allocated to oil spill startups. 2022’s record high is largely attributable to Iceye’s $136M Series D round in 2022. Similarly, Iceye’s round of $93M this year made up the majority of 2024 funding so far.


To address the limitations and drawbacks of current methods, a range of innovative technologies has been developed worldwide. These solutions each present unique trade-offs, but they effectively tackle many of the inefficiencies without reproducing the same environmental issues.



Satellites have consistently attracted the highest number of investment rounds and also lead in terms of funding, with $345 million allocated. This is largely due to their inherently capital-intensive nature and their versatility. While not exclusively used for oil spills, satellites can also provide solutions for managing wildfires, defense applications, and more.
In the realm of oil spill response, satellites, particularly those equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radars (SARs), do not engage in cleanup directly. Instead, they serve as crucial monitoring tools. They can detect spills early on, limiting damage by alerting the relevant authorities and providing timely information. Traditional detection and monitoring systems, which often rely on self-reporting or localized sensors, cannot cover vast areas as effectively as SARs. Although SARs are generally more efficient than these methods, they face challenges such as flagging false positives and accurately determining the thickness of oil spills. Nevertheless, ongoing advancements in algorithms, multi-sensor integration, and real-time data processing are improving their capabilities and aiming to address these limitations.

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The primary function of absorbents in oil spill response is to effectively remove oil without harming the marine environment. Polypropylene, commonly used in oil spill absorbents, is unfortunately highly toxic to both plants and animals. A more desirable absorbent not only removes the oil but also purifies it, making the oil reusable and reducing fuel waste. Several innovative materials have been developed for creating absorbent mats, such as graphene (e.g. Sorbene), water hyacinths (e.g. Green Keeper Africa), and even human hair (e.g. Matter of trust). Human hair is not only more effective than polypropylene - absorbing up to 8 liters of oil per kilogram - it is also more sustainable than both polypropylene and animal fur, given that it is a waste product and can be reused in a circular economy. Once saturated, these hair mats can be ecologically disposed of by treating them with oyster mushrooms and then composting them with worms. Efforts are ongoing to find sustainable methods to manage used hair mats and booms, including burning them for energy or recycling them into cement.

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Robots & drones

Robotic solutions and drones offer the advantage of handling tasks on a smaller scale that larger equipment cannot reach, due to their size and remote-controlled capability. They can be employed to address oil spills both at the surface and at the seabed level. While oil spills in the ocean are increasingly frequent and occurring on smaller scales globally, most disaster control equipment is still designed for larger-scale incidents. Consequently, the cleanup of offshore oil spills is primarily conducted manually.

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The Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided an opportunity to employ advanced genomic tools, specifically metatranscriptomics and metagenomics, for the first time in a large-scale environmental crisis. These tools analyze the genes and activity of microbes to understand how an entire ecosystem responds to disturbance. Essentially, they allowed scientists to read the ocean’s microbial reactions, revealing how these tiny organisms adapt to and cope with changes.
During the spill, certain microbes, such as Bacteroidetes—a type of bacteria—played a critical role. These microbes, typically few in number, are attracted to hydrocarbons, the main components of oil. They moved toward the oil, increased in number, and began consuming it. Initially, this biodegradation is effective in reducing the oil, although it sometimes creates byproducts that are more challenging to decompose.
This cleanup process happens much more slowly in areas with little oxygen. Still, research from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) has found that even under these challenging conditions, some microbes can continue to break down oil without oxygen, a process known as anaerobic degradation. Moreover, when chemical dispersants are used in oil spill responses they can interfere with the microbes’ ability to degrade hydrocarbons, hence non-toxic dispersants must be employed by first responders.

Explore synbio companies


Other solutions:


In summary, the management of oil spills begins with detection and monitoring, utilizing satellites and various sensors to swiftly identify spill locations. Once detected, first responders deploy specialized tools and machinery, along with absorbents, to tackle the oil at the surface level. For more inaccessible or remote areas, robots and drones are deployed to extend the reach of cleanup efforts. Finally, for persistent contaminants, particularly those affecting the seabed, advanced technologies like water treatment systems and synthetic biology come into play. These innovative solutions are designed to break down the oil residues that traditional methods may leave behind, ensuring a thorough cleanup and protection of marine ecosystems.

All of the solutions detailed above are much more innovative, efficient and sustainable than previous oil spill cleaning methods, each is tailored to a specific phase of an oil spill's lifecycle, making them all equally crucial. It is essential that these technologies continue to be developed and funded concurrently, as each plays a pivotal role in ensuring comprehensive and effective response strategies for different stages of environmental recovery.




As of now, there are no investors specifically focused on oil spill cleanup technologies, and indeed, no investor has invested in even two of these companies. This lack of investment isn't entirely surprising given the niche nature of the field. Although large oil spills are relatively rare, occurring roughly once a year, smaller spills are much more frequent. Despite this, the importance of investing in oil spill cleanup technologies cannot be overstated. These technologies are crucial for addressing spills when they do occur, and they hold the potential to mitigate long-term environmental damage to our oceans and their ecosystems, which could otherwise last for decades.


At Dealroom.co we have mapped over 30 oil spill cleaning companies across 8 different segments. For more information on climate tech or blue economy visit our guides here.