Video: MIT magnets clean offshore oil spills

Over two years later, the Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from the 2010 BP oil spill.

Perhaps the only silver lining to this deadly event was the fact that it revealed to the world just how unprepared oil companies are to prevent, contain, and clean up offshore spills.

Faced with this ugly truth, scientists and inventors have been working to advance spill clean up technologies, so that the next time a spill occurs (and there will be a next time) we have something better than boom and dispersant to throw at it.

MIT has lead the charge in this quest for new clean up technologies. Just months after the BP oil spill began, they unveiled the Seaswarm–an autonomous robot that can navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site. Now, they’ve come up with an even simpler solution: a method for separating oil from water using magnets.

We all know that oil and water don’t mix. That’s why it was so easy to see the sheen of BP’s crude oil floating on the surface of the water during and after the spill. Although it’s easy to see the oil, getting it out of the water is another problem. Skimming and burning are two common methods, but they’re inefficient, and make it impossible to recover any of the oil.

MIT’s new technique would mix water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles into the oil plume, then utilize a magnet to simply lift the oil out of the water. 

According to a recent release, the researchers envision that the process could take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. 

Afterward, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil and reused. It’s believed that this ability to recover and reuse the oil would offset much of the cost of cleanup, making companies like BP more willing to foot the bill for their mistakes.

“This oil-spill problem has not really been worked on intensively that I know of, and of course it’s a big problem,” said Ronald Rosensweig, a former Exxon researcher and a pioneer in the study of ferrofluids who wrote the field’s first textbook.

”You could think of separating oil from water by centrifuging or something like that, but in a lot of cases, the fluids are pretty much equal in density: Some of the oil sinks, some of it floats, and a lot of it is in between. The magnetic hook could, hopefully, make separation faster and better.”

Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling