These 8 Innovative Techniques Have Made Oil Spill Cleanup Much Easier



Oil spills can adversely affect wildlife and hurt local economies for years, making efficient cleanup crucial. Widespread efforts are necessary to purify the ocean and return the ecosystem to normal. 

However, people don’t have to stick to outdated methods — new techniques are making the process much faster. What developments are making cleaning oil spills easier?

1. Mesh Rollers

One of the most recent developments comes from the University of Texas-Austin. Researchers here have developed mesh rollers to make the cleaning process more efficient. Testing found success when using a dual-layer mesh roller and heating methods to extract oil from the ocean. The results indicate the devices can clean 1,400kg of oil per square meter per hour.

Oil cleanup can take weeks or months, with wildlife and ecosystems remaining vulnerable until someone assists. Mesh rollers only need a few days to clean up the mess, depending on the boating infrastructure partnering with the devices. The efficiency is a significant advantage, with the researchers achieving a 99% success rate when separating oil and water.

2. High-Tech Drainage Systems

Preparing for the next oil spill incident is crucial to making the cleanup process easier. One prominent strategy experts have used is high-tech drainage systems. These devices drain water efficiently and adjust to the slope to let gravity take control, filtering 100 gallons of water per minute while capturing oil.

Once the drainage system is in place, professionals install a barrier to block oil from contaminating rainwater. High-density polyethylene pipes further assist drainage and improve performance. They’re prominent in manufacturing because they have excellent tensile strength and corrosion resistance, meaning operators can use them numerous times in the ocean.

3. Microrobots

While humans have extraordinary capabilities, researchers have leaned into robots and automated technology to clean oil spills. Machines can typically work smarter than people, and you mitigate the risk of drowning or lack of oxygen. In the last couple of years, scientists have developed microrobots that can break down oil once amid the spill.

In a 2022 study, researchers used indigo-based and hydrophobic microrobots to traverse oil spills and clean the mess. These scientists wielded magnetic fields to navigate the microrobots wirelessly and collected oil droplets using their hydrophobic capabilities. The researchers say the microrobots don’t need additional fuel, which helps the sustainability of oil spill cleanups.

A 2023 Nanoscale study took a different approach by using microrobots to remove oil from contaminated seawater. These researchers created magnetic microrobots from spent coffee grounds to remove oil and microplastic pollution from the affected waters. Like the indigo-based devices, these microrobots employed microswarm assembly once amid the oil spill. The researchers found this method to be a sustainable and low-cost method for water treatment.

4. Innovative Soaps

Soap is for more than cleaning your body or washing your hands. Oil-cleaning experts have leveraged soaps to clean oil spills because of their magnetic properties. There hasn’t been extensive use of magnetic soaps in mass clean-ups, but researchers are optimistic because of its positive results in testing.

The idea stems from Bristol University in the United Kingdom, where researchers developed salty soap with high iron concentrations in 2012. These soaps are effective because operators can utilize magnetic fields, which makes them easier to control. Before this innovation, experts were wary of oil-cleaning soaps because most aren’t dissolvable. However, these magnetic soaps can dissolve and have a more positive environmental impact, leading product developers to wonder if they have a place in the industrial cleaning market as well.

5. Aerogels

When you think of sponges, you likely imagine the ones you use to wash your car or dishes in the sink. However, they’re also helpful when cleaning up oil spills. Scientists have leveraged innovative techniques to create lightweight, highly absorbent sponges from clay and plastic. 

The idea originated in 2010 at Case Western University in Ohio, where researchers developed aerogels to absorb oil and conserve it for later. This tool can help operators recuperate the lost oil and reduce the financial toll from losses. More recently, experts found advanced aerogels from plastic and rubber tires could be helpful for oil spill cleanups.

One 2020 Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering study found these aerogels absorb oil nearly three times better than commercial polypropylene mats and nonwoven polypropylene. If broadly implemented, this method could reduce the impact of waste from car tires and reallocate it toward a helpful cause.

6. High-Efficiency Skimmers

Skimming oil is an effective method for cleanup because of the material’s low density. Most of it stays at the water’s surface, causing it to spread quickly. Slowing it is vital to avoid contaminating large swaths of water, so highly efficient skimmers are necessary in rapid-response cleanup.

In 2010, scientists developed a skimmer to clean up the Gulf of Mexico following that year’s disaster. In previous decades, cleanup experts could achieve around 1,100 gallons of oil removed per minute. However, this Elastec skimmer surpassed the goal of 2,500 gallons per minute by averaging nearly double that. The device contains a disc that scrapes off oil and sends it into a trough, thus removing it from the water.

7. Improved Skim Boats

While skimmers are excellent devices, using them at night is challenging because you don’t get much natural light at sea. Additionally, separating and recovering oil from water is difficult without excellent accompanying technology.

Another obstacle for cleanup crews is waves, which have increased in height due to global warming. A 2023 study shows wave energy has increased by 0.27% annually, making oil cleanups more difficult. How will future efforts change?

Improving skim boats has been a significant change for cleanup professionals. Modern vessels are much faster and let crews complete their jobs before sunset. Additionally, they can withstand higher waves and continue collecting oil, increasing efficiency and significantly helping the cleanup during lousy weather.

8. Peat Moss

While technology has improved cleaning processes, some techniques use nature to mitigate oil spills. For instance, peat moss is an effective tactic for cleanup and is one of the most eco-friendly solutions. Experts successfully used this method in 2009 during the Full City oil spill on Norway’s southern coast.

The natural material absorbs oil and doesn’t allow H2O penetration, thus efficiently removing the mess from the water. The oil remains stuck inside the peat moss’ crust and is easy to extract.

Leveraging Innovation for Oil Spill Cleanups

Oil spills are among the most disastrous environmental disasters because of their adverse effects. These accidents can kill wildlife by making them sick through ingestion or inhalation, prompting crews to take fast action. 

However, modern devices aren’t exactly up to speed — continuous innovation is necessary to improve cleanup efforts. These eight techniques have made oil spills easier to manage and more environmentally conscious

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