Intelligent Energy

Using magnets to clean up oil spills

Posting in Energy

Researchers at MIT have developed a way to magnetically separate oil and water, a technique they say will more effectively recover spilled oil and offset cleanup costs.

Oil spill control efforts -- like those used during the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico -- typically focus on the crude floating on the surface of the water and rely on a hodgepodge of solutions from skimmers and floating containment booms to burning the oil and using chemical dispersants. None of them are wildly effective on their own. And even when used in combination, not all the oil is recovered, especially when the water is choppy.

Researchers at MIT have developed a technique that could make cleaning up oil spills a far more efficient and cost effective endeavor with help from water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles.

Markus Zahn, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering, says after the BP oil spill disaster he had an idea: If the oil were magnetic, it could be removed using strong magnets and then separated from the oil.

Zahn, Shahriar Khushrushahi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering, will present its work at the International Conference on Magnetic fluids in January.

Under the researchers' scheme, water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles (basically fluids with magnetic nanoparticles floating around in them) is mixed with the oil, which could then be separated from the water using magnets. The research team, which has filed two patents, envisions the process would take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment, according to MIT's News Office. The nanoparticles could then be magnetically removed from the oil and reused.

As for the oil, it could be sent to a refinery, where it could be turned into a variety of fuels, such as gasoline.

Photo: MIT

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure