The BP oil spill will possibly forever remain etched into people’s psyche as the poster boy for oil spills gone terribly, terribly wrong. Of course, the occurrence of oil spills themselves are unfortunately not new, occurring for possibly as long as oil has been mined at sea or transported over it. Of course, while the losses in capital may be dear, the damage to marine and coastal ecologies are profound and the struggle of cleaning oil spills is near Sisyphean. Over the years, scientists have proposed many ways of cleaning up oil spills effectively, but none have really held promise or properly utilized.
But now, a research team from the University of Bristol, publishing their work in the journal, Soft Matter, have come up with quite a novel way to clean up oil spills, indeed any chemical spills, and is so effective that it promises to "revolutionise the chemical industry."
What the researchers have come up with is a new molecule that can make "magnetic emulsions." The molecule in question is able to mix and coat liquids and because it has magnetic properties, it can be affected when a magnetic field is applied to it, making it, in a way, a sort of coat that could cover oil and then be scooped up by a magnet, effectively cleaning any other liquid the oil is mixed with.
Speaking about this new molecule that his team created, Julian Eastoe of the University of Bristol said, “We're making emulsions from essentially seawater and the kind of oils that would be spilled, and we're seeing that we can manipulate them using a magnetic field," and that the molecule could be used to clean up oil spills and is a "a practical application without a shadow of a doubt."
This new magnetic emulsion is an extension of the same team’s "magnetic soap," which they had created back in January, publishing their work in the journal, Angewandte Chemie.
The magnetic emulsion is based on the idea of surfactants or surface-active agents, which are basically metal atoms that react when a magnetic field is applied. The surfactant is designed such that as a chain of metal atoms, one end of the chain becomes "hydrophilic", or water-loving, while the other is “hydrophobic” or water-fearing. This property of the surfactant allows it to bind to say oil in an oil/water mixture, with the "hydrophobic" section attaching to the oil molecules and the hydrophillic pointing outwards toward the water. This in turn creates an emulsion, which is affected by a magnetic field, possibly enabling the removal of pollutants from water.
Prof. Eastoe also has said that a possible application for the magnetic emulsion could be for medicine, used to deliver any drug to specific areas of the body using a magnetic field.