Around 9 years ago during routine construction work at Nahal Zin, which is a 120 kilometer long intermittent stream that drains into the southern tip of the Dead Sea in Israel, an oil pipeline was struck by one of the diggers in the area. As a result, over 190 gallons of jet fuel poured into the stream, polluting the surrounding natural habitat and causing even more damage as the toxic fuel flowed downstream. The full magnitude of the damage included dozens of acres, destroying plants and wildlife in the area for good. However, the disaster sprouted an Israeli initiative that aims to end the damage caused by global oil spills.

A lightweight system that aims to contain oil spills quickly

Israeli startup HARBO Technologies has developed a system that enables rapid response to various marine oil spills - oceans, lakes, or rivers. T-Fence is a portable, lightweight (the company tells us that they’re the lightest in the world), and easily deployed floating containment system for marine contamination. The system’s cartridges can be stored anywhere, ready for deployment with minimal manpower - 1 or 2 people - and with no prior training.

The T-Fence system is developed and manufactured in Israel. The system is made from a lightweight and highly durable material, comprised primarily of different plastic compounds that were developed by the HARBO team. In addition, the Israeli company also specially developed the machines that manufacture the floating marine-saving system.

HARBO CEO and co-founder Boaz Ur explains in a conversation with Geektime that the final product came after 4 vigorous years of hard work that included over 400 prototypes until hitting the home run with a commercial ready product in 2018. Ur adds that the company has 4 patents, with each one registered in different countries, and two design patents registered in the U.S. - for structure and for its real-time deployment methodology.

Ur explains that the product is “completely different than existing solutions, because it can be stored and deployed anywhere a marine oil spill occurs. Its lightweight and easily deployed features enables rapid use by minimal personnel, thus effectively containing the spill and ensuring minimal damage. According to Ur, the existing market solutions are heavy and complicated to operate, while also requiring heavy machinery, manpower, and a way to transfer the system to the contaminated area.

HARBO's oil containment system credit: HARBO Technologies

The leak that led to the idea

But how do you develop something like this? Ur tells that 2 of the company’s founders - Haim Greenberg and Arnon Shany - saw the 2011 disaster at Nahal Zin and thought about a solution that would contain the spill immediately. Ur says that “they asked to see what solutions are used at sea, and found that not much was offered. From day one we understood that we need to develop a solution that can be deployed immediately in response to an oil spill. Just like the using a fire extinguisher until the fire department arrives, the extinguisher can actually prevent a greater disaster, and so can rapidly containing oil spills in real-time before irreversible damage can occur.”

He continue to tell that the target market for the product is anywhere a possible oil spill can take place, meaning over 200,000 vessels and sites around the world, including ships, oil tankers, oil rigs, beach infrastructures, pipelines near rivers, coast guard, and more. And according to Ur, we’re talking about a $5-$8 billion global market.

Ur confirms that despite there being over 20,000 annual oil spills around the globe, only between 7%-15% of the leaked oil is contained and collected. This is mostly due to lagging response time of the existing market offering. He notes that the initial response time - just as with the fire extinguisher or public-placed defibrillator - is key to managing an oil spill.

The company was founded in 2014 by Haim Greenberg, Boaz Ur, and Anon Shany. The Israeli-based factory manufactures and exports its proprietary oil-containment system. Among the list of current customers are the Port of Singapore (one of the largest and most active seaports in the world), the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard, and American oil corporations Exxon Mobile and Marathon Oil.

The company is currently developing a unique feature for its system in collaboration with the EU, where the T-Fence system will be mounted on an unmanned floating vessel, which was developed by a British company, to patrol the waters for petroleum spills. HARBO has raised a total of $6.4 million to date from investors and grants.