MIT researchers separate oil from water with magnets

Since the BP oil spill in April 2010, there has been increased focus and debate on offshore drilling, including the economic and environmental impacts it presents. Although the United States has significant, proven onshore energy reserves at various shale plays across the nation, offshore drilling has become the latest frontier for energy production. With constant demand for domestic energy sources, oil companies are beginning to invest in the vast potential that offshore reserves can provide. As gasoline prices rise, there is increased incentive to explore ever deeper offshore waters in attempt to keep costs down at the pump. However, as technology improves drilling techniques, the question remains: Can energy companies prevent future disasters like the BP blowout through improved prevention systems and safety measures? If so, are these safety measures currently in place?

After spending billions of dollars on lobbying efforts over a period of more than five years, Shell was recently granted a concession to begin drilling in the Arctic waters of Alaska in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The oil company has since been forced to halt drilling due to numerous setbacks but promises to move ahead as planned in 2013 when the ice sheets clear.

Throughout the international community, many are questioning if the proper technology is in place to contain an oil spill in the unforgiving Arctic environment should a blowout occur. This got me thinking, what emerging technologies could possibly aid in oil spill cleanup efforts? While this may not be a new question, an innovative solution is now in the works.

I found this article published by MITnews showing how magnets are currently being used to separate oil from water. While this potentially game-changing technology is still in its infancy, early results are demonstrating that magnets could soon play a key role in extracting oil from our oceans in a way that cleans the water and allows the oil to be salvaged.

New method for cleaning oil spills

MIT researchers have recently been focusing their work on understanding the effects of ferrofluids within water. Ferrofluids are liquids that become magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. The plan is to use strong magnets to control the movement of oil and ultimately separate and extract the oil from the water. As you can see in the video, this technology looks like something you might see in a science fiction film, but rest assured: this is not fiction.

This emerging technology opens up a possibility to contain and recapture spilled oil – which could drastically reduce the cost of cleanup efforts. In addition, successfully removing the oil would result in clean water – something that current cleanup technologies struggle to achieve. Previous work has been done using ferrofluids to separate oil from water but effectiveness has been limited.

MIT researchers have developed a new method of magnet positioning that allows oil to be pulled up and out of the water using elongated magnets. Shahriar Khushrushahi, a postdoctoral student in the MIT Computer Science department, contributed to refining the design. He explains that “The design is simple, but it provides excellent separation between oil and water.”

Traditional methods of containing oil spills, such as burning the oil or using skimmers, have not been effective in fully removing oil matter from water and come at a high economic and environmental cost. While their model has not yet been replicated on a large scale, MIT researchers believe the technique could soon be very useful in remediating oil spill releases in aquatic environments. The technique of separating the oil from water using magnets may prove to be the most straightforward and simple approach to one of the energy industry’s toughest environmental challenges.

The Department of Energy recently released an annual report on onshore and offshore energy production, including recommendations for continued growth in energy independence and development of much-needed safety innovations from the private sector. Read our related blog post.

Until next time,

Jordan Schmidt environmental professional

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