Zapping Oil Spills With Dry Ice and Ingenuity : Inventions: Tim Beck says he’s discovered a way to freeze oil and simplify the cleanup effort. And the technique could be used to fight fires as well. Skeptics are a little cool to the idea.


It all started with the Huntington Beach oil spill in 1990, when Tim Beck stood on the beach watching a black tide of crude oil heading into shore.

“It just kept getting closer and closer (to the beach)), and nobody showed up to save the day,” says Beck, 45, a Manhattan Beach inventor and, to make ends meet, an El Segundo substitute science teacher. “I started thinking there had to be some way to stop an oil spill.”

Then it came to him. Why not use massive heat extraction? In other words, why not freeze the oil? Turn the liquid oil spill into a frozen oil spill--an “oilberg” as Beck calls it. Then you could simply pluck the chunks of oil right off the water, simple as fishing an ice cube out of a highball.


It was simple, it was ingenious--and it took Beck three years to figure out how to do it. Now, he says, the concept is proven.

Of course, as with any invention, Beck says, there are doubters, naysayers, flat-worlders. But we’ll get to that later.

The idea of freezing oil came almost naturally to Beck, who has freezing experience. For 12 years Beck, who has a master’s degree in biology from UCLA, ran a kidney bank at which the organs were preserved by supercooling techniques. Beck’s first idea for freezing oil spills was to use liquid nitrogen, which at nearly minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit is plenty cold enough to freeze oil or almost anything else. Only problem was, it’s so cold that it might also freeze the oil-spill workers along with the oil. He had to scratch that idea.

Then Beck thought about using frozen carbon dioxide--that is, dry ice--as the heat extraction agent. The only problem was that oil experts said dry ice, at minus 109 degrees Fahrenheit, isn’t cold enough to freeze crude oil. Beck discovered that it was indeed cold enough, once the gases contained in crude oil dissipated into the air. *

The problem then was figuring out how to put dry ice on an oil spill. You couldn’t just dump blocks of dry ice in the oil-covered water, because dry ice doesn’t float.

Finally Beck found a company in Rancho Cucamonga, Alpheus Cleaning Technologies, that manufactures dry ice pellets for “ice blasting,” which is like sandblasting except that dry ice is used. For about 15 cents a pound, the company sells dry ice pellets about an eighth of an inch long and about the thickness of spaghetti--small enough to float, big enough to freeze oil.

Beck started taking his idea to oil companies, seeking financing to continue the experiments. But he had a hard time finding backers.

“Oil companies don’t like to focus on oil spills,” he says. “Instead of funding research, they’d rather say, ‘What problem?’ ”

Eventually, though, Beck says he found an oil company that put about $50,000 into his research program. (Beck says a secrecy agreement prevents him from identifying the company.) He put another $20,000 of his own money into it.

The results were encouraging, Beck says. During one experiment he managed to create a 500-pound “oilberg,” demonstrating the feasibility of the process on bigger-than-a-mudpuddle spills.

He also managed to come up with another application for his dry-ice theories: firefighting. Beck figured that shooting dry ice pellets into an enclosed room would quickly “supercool” the temperature, thus quashing the fire. And since dry ice evaporates into a gas, rather than melting into water, it would prevent water damage in library fires, museum fires--any fires where water is almost as dangerous as the fire itself.

Earlier this month Beck and Pat Smith, his partner in the project, staged a demonstration of both dry ice applications--oil freezing and firefighting--at the Manhattan Beach Fire Department. While firefighters and an oil spill specialist for Chevron looked on, Beck used a converted leaf-blower--he calls it a cryoblaster--to shoot dry ice pellets onto a tub full of oil. Then he used a converted fire extinguisher to shoot dry ice pellets onto a fire in a can. The results? The oil froze, and the fire went out.

One of Beck’s former UCLA professors, who was there to lend moral support, was encouraging.

“I think it has real possibilities,” said chemistry professor Mario Baur. “This is so much better (for oil spill cleanup) than anything we have so far. It has a lot of potential in certain situations.”

Not everyone was completely convinced, however.

“I’m not saying anything bad about the idea,” Stu Hackney, an oil spill coordinator for Chevron in El Segundo, said later. “It might work in calm water, around piers and that kind of thing.” But Hackney doubts it would be practical in open water, where wave action could disperse frozen oil just as it does unfrozen oil.

As for fighting fires with dry ice, Manhattan Beach Fire Marshal Steven Age predicted, “It’s going to take a little more work.”

But Beck is undeterred.

“All we need now is corporate support and financing,” he says. “Our only problem is money.”

He doesn’t want the money for himself, he says, but for the research. In fact, he hasn’t even patented the dry-ice process.

“All patents do is give you the right to sue people,” Beck says. “We’re looking for ways to protect the environment.” Besides, he adds with a laugh, “We inventors always die poor.”

So who knows? Maybe someday Tim Beck will be to oil spills what Thomas Edison was to the kerosene lamp--the guy who will put them out of business.

And even if that doesn’t work out, he has other ideas. Right now, for example, he has an idea for taming hurricanes by cooling down the sea water they move over. See, first you dump a bunch of dry ice into the water from submarines . . .