Cleaning oil spills with high performance magnets,

Image by Kirsty Pargeter

MIT researchers have developed a new technique for magnetically separating oil and water that could be used to clean up oil spills. They believe that, with their technique, the oil could be recovered for use, offsetting much of the cost of cleanup. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is reported as one of the US’s worst environmental disasters, costing $40 million. At the time, this innovative new method was not available, thus traditional methods such as skimming where used to revise the damage. However these methods are not effective, and some argue that they have caused more harm than good.

On its own, oil is not magnetic, but MIT’s new technique would mix water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles--that contain iron--into the oil plume, and then utilize a magnet to simply lift the oil out of the water. The researchers envision that the process could take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. Seawater polluted with oil would be pumped onto a boat treatment facility. Once onboard, the magnetic nanoparticles would be added and attach themselves to the oil. The liquid would then be filtered with the magnets to separate the oil and water, with the water returned to the sea and the oil carried back to shore to an oil refinery. 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.

Until now the two main methods have been using chemical dispersants, which break up the oil, and skimming, a technique whereby the oil is pulled off the surface of the water.Although there are drawbacks to both -- chemical dispersants can have negative impacts on marine life and skimming can be hampered by bad weather -- magnetic techniques may still find it difficult to gain acceptance. The use of tiny nanoparticles is seen by some as controversial. As well as being complex and difficult to use on a large-scale, there are concerns they could damage marine life, if accidentally released.

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Last year we sailed through an oil stain with one of our catamarans that we offer for Ibiza boat hire. The stain was close to the Ibiza channel, around 100 m2 size, between Spain main coast and the islands of Ibiza and Formentera. We stopped and tried to clean it, but there was no way to recover the oil, even together with some water. One of the big tankers motoring full speed along the traffic separating channel probably emptied the bottoms.

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