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Rapid response to mitigate the effects of maritime disasters (SUSY)

The propagation of spillages after ship disasters is one of the biggest threats to the marine environment. Instead of focussing on cleaning up the mess, a new EU-funded system will prevent or lessen spillages from the outset, by stabilising vessels in the crucial moments immediately after an accident.

Tags: Water
Tanker with SUSY system installed. ©SUSY
Tanker with SUSY system installed.

“Ours is a prototype system for assisting damaged ships and raising sunken vessels,” explains Rory Doyle of BMT Group Limited. “We are using airbags to provide additional buoyancy, quickly and in the right places.”

Doyle leads the EU-funded SUSY project, which has been working to adapt a set of technologies currently used in emergency systems on board submarines for use in merchant ships.

In submarines, rocket technologies originally intended for satellite launchers, with liquid or solid fuel, are used to blow water out of ballast tanks extremely rapidly, thus providing buoyancy, for example in uncontrolled dive situations. SUSY’s aim has been to combine this rocket-based technology with air pressure systems and advanced balloon technologies to create a multi-purpose, modular system for ship rescue.

“This meant designing new balloons capable of resisting high temperatures and pressures,” says Doyle, “as well as a harsh marine environment including salt water and mechanical stresses. We also had to develop the gas generation system, capable of producing large amounts of gas in a very short amount of time.”

Step by step

Before they could begin, SUSY researchers had to develop modelling approaches to analyse the effect of the system on the structures and stability of ships. “We needed to design a system that would slowly raise a ship rather than risking it shooting to the surface in an uncontrolled manner.”

There have been previous attempts to create similar systems, Doyle says. For example, one approach has been to try to install an inflatable ring around a vessel, or to have divers install lift bags inside submerged ships. But the SUSY project is different in some notable respects.

“First, we are using gas generation systems for rapid inflation,” Doyle says. “Second, our system can be installed internally, within the ship’s hull. And finally, we have developed some novel and rather interesting mathematical modelling approaches.”

The resulting prototype has been a success, he asserts: “A prototype system was developed and demonstrated, operating within a full-scale model of a double-bottom compartment, and also for external lifting.”

Real impact

With further development, Doyle says his team believes the system will constitute a useful tool for salvers and as a retrofitable system for ship operators, ultimately having an impact on the daily work of a few thousand people.

“However,” he stresses, “if the environmental consequences of a large accident, such as the break-up of an oil tanker, are taken into account, we will have avoided the economic, environmental and health costs of the resulting disaster.”

According to statistics published in the Lloyds Open Form Report 2012, for 997 shipping incidents from 2000 to 2010, the total salvaged value was possibly in excess of €2.9 billion, while actual costs of economic, environmental and personal damage were significantly higher.

Doyle says, “We estimate that in about 8% of these cases SUSY would have either mitigated damage, allowing stabilisation and return to port, or been useful in the salvage operation, making the overall economic benefit approximately €230 million.”

Importantly, the project has already resulted in a patented system for providing additional buoyancy to near-surface objects such as submarines.

“It couldn’t have happened without teamwork,” Doyle says. “The project needed specialist skills, ranging from naval architecture to textiles and rocketry. Leading experts in all these areas were certainly not available in a single country so international collaboration was critical. It is also worth recognising that the maritime industry is international in nature and thus a single country approach would have missed critical industry factors and therefore would not have been credible.”

Furthermore, he adds, the EU played a key role: “The project was risky, outside of the core businesses of participants, and it required considerable resources to develop and test. Without the EU support, we would not have been able to achieve the results. Moreover the European dimension encouraged the development of networks and contacts, which were vital to its success.”