Microsubmarines may help clean up oil spills


May 3, 2012

Scientists have created nanoscale submarines, for use in gathering up oil droplets in the event of oil spills

Scientists have created nanoscale submarines, for use in gathering up oil droplets in the event of oil spills

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If anything good came out of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it was that it got people thinking about technologies for cleaning up future spills. While things like magnetic soap, nanosponges, and autonomous robots are all in the works, a group of scientists recently announced the results of their research into another possibility – oil droplet-gathering microsubmarines.

The magnetically-guided “submarines” are actually based on existing microtube engines, that were developed to transport and deliver medication within the human body. Each of the nanomachines is about eight micrometers long – approximately ten times smaller than the width of a human hair – and has an open, funnel-like front end. They are powered by an inner layer of hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with the surrounding liquid to produce jets of bubbles, which shoot out the back of the engines to rapidly propel them forward.

The group of American and Spanish researchers, led by the University of California - San Diego's Prof. Joseph Wang, applied a superhydrophobic coating to the gold outer surface of these machines. This water-repellant skin lets them to slip through the water easily, while at the same time allowing them to absorb any oil droplets that they encounter.

In laboratory tests, the microsubmarines were turned loose in water samples that were contaminated with olive oil and motor oil. The results were promising, in that the subs were able to collect and transport oil droplets. Needless to say, cleaning up oil spills in the open ocean would be another matter. Scores of the subs would be needed, and the scientists suggest that they might have to be powered by an external source, such as electrical or magnetic fields.

Full details on the research can be seen in a paper that was recently published in the journal ACS Nano.

Source: American Chemical Society

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

A lot of good came out of the BP oil spill. Primarily, it reminded the public of the ideocy of Eco-Greenies' support of oil tankers and oil spills, by preventing us from drilling on our own land and forcing oil exploration offshore.

Todd Dunning

2 Things.

@Todd Dunning - nice try.

The micro subs? are nice, BUT not terribly practical for several reasons, 1. blockages, 2. volume of oil NEEDED to be processed, and 3. the overall capacity of them individually and collectively.

Scores of the subs would be needed? Ummmm at a few microns each - try a few hundred trillion.

Mr Stiffy

This seems like the kind of thing that marine organisms would likely confuse with food.

Alan Belardinelli

Sounds like a step in the right direction.

Gary Richardson
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