UT researchers improve oil spill clean up with ten-times improvement

While oil spills can take years to clean up, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering are using their material science's knowledge to reimagine how the oil is recovered. 

The Deepwater Horizon Oil spill, the largest in U.S. history, poured hundreds of millions of gallons of oil off the gulf coast of the U.S. in 2010. 13 years later, only about a quarter of the oil has been recovered from the water. 

The new technology uses a soft-polymer gel and a dual-layer roller design. The gel-coated mesh is hydrophobic and oleophilic at the bottom. Induction heating is used to dilute the oil and make it less viscous at the top layer. The cleaned oil is held in between the two layers. According to Professor Guihua Yu, his team achieved over 99% oil-water separation efficiency. 

"Materials are so central to all our daily lives," Yu said. "We are always looking out for sustainable plastic, so we have some ongoing work to make sure this plastic we use is most sustainable so it can be recycled much more easily, so you don’t need to burn it, so this actually is the central focus of our research is designing better materials for a better world, a more sustainable world." 

Traditionally, skimmers are used to clean oil spills. That technology has not been updated in decades. It is both a slow process and doesn't allow for the oil to be properly separated from the water. With the new technology, oil can be used right away. The roller technology can also be built in different sizes to deal with different-scales of oil spills. The oil can then be used for refinement or in other industries.

The technology can potentially retrieve up to 1,400 kilograms of oil per square meter per hour.