When the BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico, authorities were hard pressed to find a safe way to get the crude out of the water quickly. Ultimately boats deployed miles of boom in an attempt to contain the spreading slick, then spend weeks skimming it out of the water. Chemical dispersants were released by airplane, but these were highly controversial as they merely break down oil into smaller bits, but don't degrade it completely.
Now it seems that scientists from Bristol University may have discovered a more efficient way to clean-up oil spills that won't leave any (or not nearly as much) of these invisible toxins behind: a soap that can be controlled by magnets.
Researchers created the soap by dissolving iron in liquid surfactant. The soap’s magnetic properties were proved with neutrons at the Institut Laue-Langevin to result from tiny iron-rich clumps that sit within the watery solution.
To test its properties, the team introduced a magnet to a test tube containing their new soap lying beneath a less dense organic solution. When the magnet was introduced the iron-rich soap overcame both gravity and surface tension between the water and oil, to levitate through the organic solvent and reach the source of the magnetic energy, proving its magnetic properties.
What scientists hope is that this magnetic soap could be deployed in oil spill areas as a means to literally lift the crude particles out of the water quickly and completely, without leaving behind a nasty "dispersant" residue. The solution could also be used in scientific experiments that require precise control of liquid droplets.
"From a commercial point of view, though these exact liquids aren’t yet ready to appear in any household product, by proving that magnetic soaps can be developed, future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications from water treatment to industrial cleaning products,” said Professor Julian Eastoe.
It's high time that oil recovery technology caught up with the technology used to get it out of the ground in the first place. Although it would be nice if we could just stop building leaky oil rigs and pipelines, the potential of this discovery could go a long way toward protecting our waterways, though there's no mention of whether it would be viable in the freezing waters of the Arctic, oil's next frontier.
Image Credit: Flickr - lsgcp