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Using Fleets of Microsubmarines to Clean up Oil Spills

Scientists from the University of California-San Diego, along with some colleagues based in Spain, have developed a new method for removing oil from water. They used self-propelled microsubmarines to capture oil droplets and transport them through the water in a system that could help clear up oil spills.

The study, which appeared in the journal ACS Nano, was led by Joseph Wang, and is the first of its kind to try using the tiny machines, normally used in biology as receptors or drug delivery systems, as environmental helpers.

The cone-shaped machines are made from self-assembled monolayers and have special chemical properties which make them extremely water resistant, and also helps them to pick up oil more readily. Due to their water repellent nature they move very quickly and efficiently through the water, requiring very little fuel.

In laboratory tests Wang and his colleagues demonstrated the machines effectiveness at removing olive oil and motor oil from the water and transporting it around. They offer a more environmentally friendly option for cleaning oil than new types of soap, or other absorbent materials.

They suggest that large-scale clean ups would probably require different methods of propulsion that would be more powerful, or with a power source that could last longer, perhaps electric motors powered by magnetic fields or electrical currents in the water.

Then again, being 10 times thinner than the average human hair suggests that large-scale clean ups, such as that needed after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, would require vast fleets of these little submarines, which may not be economical, or effective for such tasks.

By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com



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