Oil and water don’t mix–except for the 3 million or so gallons spilled into US waters each year from oil wells, tankers, and other sources. Cleaning it up has always been a messy, expensive and imperfect. After decades of technological stagnation, a burst of interest (and funding) has prompted researchers to revisit better ways to clean up the mess petroleum leaves behind.
The biggest reason for the surge is the $40 billion BP cleanup from the Deepwater Horizon. During the crisis, 200 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico washing up on beaches or settling on the ocean bottom. BP’s command center received more than 65,000 suggestions on how to clean up the mess during the crisis.
While magnets and centrifuges are among the more exotic technologies under development, the mainstay is still mechanical “skimming:” corralling an oil slick with floating booms and then physically separating the oil form water.
The problem, the Coast Guard told Discovery News, is that even in ideal weather conditions, it is impossible to fully separate the water and oil by skimming.
Now, a new generation of filters emerging from university labs may do that by flipping the conventional filtering mechanism on its head. New oil filter materials can absorb water while repelling oil and yielding almost pure streams of oil and water, according to research published this August in Nature Communications. By relying on gravity instead of high pressures, to run the process, and lasting for more than 100 hours without clogging, the new filters promise to be far more economical than today’s technologies for rapid cleanup of spilled oil.
“This is one of the cheapest and most energy efficient ways to separate oil and water mixtures,” said one of the authors to the he University of Michigan. Others are working on related technologies: a similar experiment by University of Pittsburg researcher Di Gao, a polymer coating on cotton achieved similar oil and water separation:
For now, the next generation of oil cleanup technologies are still being tested. When the next Deepwater Horizon hits, perhaps we’ll be ready.