From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published September 14, 2012 11:31 AM

Magnets can help clean up oil spills

Oil spills can have catastrophic impacts on marine ecosystems so it is important for responsible parties to make every effort to help mitigate these damages when they occur.



Cleanup efforts have ranged from bioremediation, to controlled burning, to using chemical dispersants, and skimming.  However, these clean up methods can take weeks to complete and are often very costly.

Researchers at MIT have developed a new technique for magnetically separating oil and water that could be used to clean up oil spills. The new technique will improve efficiency, as the method will allow oil to be collected and sent to a refinery to be reprocessed. 

Markus Zahn, a professor at MIT said "After the BP oil disaster about two years ago in the gulf of Mexico, I got the idea that if the oil were magnetic we would be able to remove it with strong magnets and separate it from the water."

Researchers experimented with water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles that when mixed with oil, could separate the oil from the water using magnets. Afterwards, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil.

When oil spills occur, most of the oil sinks and the rest of the water that is on top spreads due to moving water. Choppy waters that make oil recovery more difficult since oil is further broken up, exacerbating this spread. However, by putting magnetic nanoparticles that like the oil into the mix, the particles will attach to the oil and allow for separation of clean water.

Lead author, Shahriar Khushrushahi stated, "Because of magnetic forces we can separate the two very quickly because the forces are so much stronger than density and that’s the advantage. We can actually process this much faster and continuously without any real power being expended."

The design and process is made to be simple. This is beneficial because oil spill clean ups occur on a large scale and most likely at sea where electrical power is scare and maintenance facilities are limited.

Read more at MIT News Office

Magnetic fluid image via MIT News Office. 

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