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M.I.T.: Oil-absorbing nanotech could have cleaned up Deepwater in one month [video]

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MIT, oil, DeepwaterIt looks like a solar-powered treadmill, but researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) say they have created a flat, conveyor belt–like device that could clean up oil slicks far more efficiently than anything used at the Deepwater Horizon site. They key is a nanoparticle-infused, water-repelling mesh coating a conveyor belt. As important is the device’s ability to work autonomously as part of a larger team of devices, which M.I.T. calls a Seaswarm.

Members of M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab, which made a name for itself a year ago through its Trash Track program for keeping tabs on discarded electronics, will present their Seaswarm research—as well as a video demonstrating a prototype in action—Saturday at Italy’s Venice Biennale international art, music and architecture festival. Venice Biennale’s theme this year is how nanotechnology will change the way people live in 2050.

Here’s how a Seaswarm oil cleanup effort might work: Each five- by two-meter device within the Seaswarm uses its conveyor belt to skim oil out of the water as well as propel itself forward. With GPS and oil-detecting sensors to guide them, the devices could position themselves to attack oil slicks like a swarm of hungry caterpillars on a leaf.

If you run your fingers over the nanomaterial, it feels smooth, says Assaf Biderman, associate director of the Senseable City Lab. "Imagine a sponge where the pores are very small." The material isn’t specific to oil absorption, so it could potentially be used to clean other types of chemicals out of water as well.

The reusable nanoparticle mesh coating can absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil, M.I.T. estimates. The device cleans its conveyor belt by heating up the mesh to burn off the oil. Each device is powered by two square meters of solar panels and is designed to run on just 100 watts. Because the device is flat it should adhere to the water’s surface and move with the waves to avoid capsizing, Biderman says.

Cleanup efforts have deployed more than 800 conventional skimmers to the Gulf of Mexico this summer to contain BP’s oil spill, yet they could not collect more than 3 percent of the subsurface oil, according to M.I.T. These skimmers use belts, rotating discs and ropes to mechanically separate oil from water.

A fleet of 5,000 Seaswarm devices could clean a spill the size of the one at the Deepwater site in one month, M.I.T. researchers estimate. They aim to prove this supposition by entering the Seaswarm design into the X PRIZE’s $1 million oil-cleanup competition, which will award the team that can most efficiently collect surface oil with the highest recovery rate.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated earlier this month that 4.9 million barrels spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 explosion at BP’s Macondo well. Government scientists say about 50 percent of the spilled oil has been captured, evaporated, burned or skimmed, and another 25 percent has naturally or chemically dispersed, although other scientists have disputed these claims, saying that the government has underestimated how much oil remains at large.


Image and video courtesy of M.I.T.

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  1. 1. lamorpa 11:51 am 08/27/2010

    The best M.I.T research in the entire world of M.I.T is going on at M.I.T.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 2:08 pm 08/27/2010

    This article begins by stating:
    "It looks like a solar-powered treadmill, but researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) say they have created a flat, conveyor belt-like device that could clean up oil slicks far more efficiently than anything used at the Deepwater Horizon site."

    While this statement does specify oil slicks, by claiming superior applicability to the Deeepwater Horizon site it infers effectiveness for the recent disaster. How could these surface skimmers have been effective at cleaning up the subsurface blowout in the Gulf?

    Should the exaggerated claims be attributed to the youthful overenthusiasm of M.I.T. researchers or overly aggressive marketing by Scientific American?

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  3. 3. lamorpa 2:37 pm 08/27/2010

    How could a device, of which only a single, non-scale prototype exists, clean up oil slicks that used to surround the site? There’s both an existence and a chronology problem here. Has ‘M.I.T’ invented a matter creator and transporter, and a time machine too?

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 6:16 pm 08/27/2010

    I failed to mention that the title, "M.I.T.: Oil-absorbing nanotech could have cleaned up Deepwater in one month", makes the most extraordinary unsubstantiated claim, especially considering that this device only skims oil off the surface, whereas apparently much of the Deepwater release has never made it to the surface. Preposterous! I presume that Scientific American is responsible for the title.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 6:32 pm 08/27/2010

    While I’m no seaman, these craft don’t appear to be particularly seaworthy…

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  6. 6. ormondotvos 6:50 pm 08/27/2010

    Perhaps through negating the need for Corexit, by allowing all the oil to surface?

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  7. 7. ormondotvos 6:54 pm 08/27/2010

    Seaworthiness is merely survival if there is no one on board. It sits right on the surface, the best place to be. Boats, with their need for a survival space, are harder to design. They look possible to me. Go to the MIT website.

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  8. 8. ormondotvos 7:04 pm 08/27/2010

    I’m suspicious. The article at MIT talks of no need to return to port with the oil collected, since it is "digested"(scare quotes in original) in place, but it makes no mention of the process. The seaworthiness testing was done on the Charles River, not exactly the open ocean with breaking waves. Hmmmm.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 8:16 pm 08/27/2010

    ormondotvos – Seems like I heard something about tidal surfing on the Charles, but I think it was entirely theoretical…

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 12:16 am 08/28/2010

    The absorption capabilities of the filter material may be worthy of a robust product design rather than the student technology project displayed here. The mock-up presented almost seems capable of cleaning up serious SPF-10 lotion spills in the wading pool (really!).

    The fairly simple addition of perhaps lightweight pontoon structures might provide sufficient rigidity and flotation to extend this device’s capabilities to more realistic conditions generally found on the open seas. Certainly additional development is required to produce a usefully robust design.

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  11. 11. aikidog 12:20 am 08/28/2010

    If their device is so effective why was it not deployed during the spill. Even if there were only one test model and a small patch of the overall slick was cleaned. The claims would have been justified as well as securing countless millions in further funding to see this project succeed..

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  12. 12. mikecimerian 12:21 am 08/28/2010

    There’s still plenty of oil to catch … no one will hold them from doing trials on location.

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  13. 13. mikecimerian 12:24 am 08/28/2010

    I guess they’re welcome to go test it asap on the South Coast. Empiricism obliges. :P

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  14. 14. Neptunerover 3:00 am 08/28/2010

    Hooray! Problem solved! We don’t have to worry about oil spills anymore, so drill, baby, drill! Just make sure each rig and tanker has a fleet of these little critters surrounding it at all times.

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  15. 15. tichead 10:38 am 08/28/2010

    The first storm would have workers cleaning up the thousands of swamped skimmers. Even assuming positive buoyancy, they certianly don’t appear to be self-righting. So when the solar panel submerges, the motor stops. Now there are thousands of low visibility hazards to navigation strewn across hundreds of square miles of seaway that is already jammed with response vessels. The absorbing material seems to be wonderful stuff, but MIT may want to reconsider how best to use it. Perhaps a larger, manned, engine powered vessel that runs on the oil collected…

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 3:26 pm 08/28/2010

    tichead – There you go – a steamer with a crude oil boiler ought to work! They can prime it by burning carbon credits…

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  17. 17. tichead 9:22 am 08/29/2010

    jtdwyer: Brilliant! The supply of carbon credits would drop, the price would go up, the carbon traders would profit, and oil would be cleaned up. I like it!

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  18. 18. focalist 3:00 pm 08/29/2010

    Truly sad that SciAm has turned shill, as well as making unfounded and specious claims- claims that effect the lives of millions of people. Just who got the kickback here?

    This isn’t an article. It’s not even a decent prospectus. It’s crap, and now the technology (however capable) will forever be viewed as crap because of the outrageous and nonsensical claims by our supposed "unbiased" scientific information source.

    Guys, go back to marketing class if your intent is to sell your integrity… the people buying it aren’t even getting their money’s worth. If you are going to whore out, then at least get better at it.

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  19. 19. mikecimerian 3:31 am 08/30/2010

    There is a blind spot in marine mega-machines, it is the very large scale surface oil collector factory ship.

    Maybe the Norwegians will seize the market as they did with their naval cranes. :-)

    A "modest" first proposal : make the ship capable of covering a 10 football field wide skimming area.

    These people are talking spoonfuls while large scale machinery is still in our practical realm of solutions.

    At their current stage they may offer new breeds of biological filtration but such a claim from within a University should bring concerned faculty members before their Dean and a faculty hearing.

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  20. 20. tichead 9:22 am 08/30/2010

    focalist: Very true. I don’t subscribe to Sciam for the sensationalistic value. I subscribe for valid information, which may include in the conclusions some some speculation about future developments. But this article, and unfortunately too many other articles, are touting unfounded claims merely for dramatic effect.

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  21. 21. bonderman 7:17 pm 09/1/2010

    "The device cleans its conveyor belt by heating up the mesh to burn off the oil."
    Exactly what are these "burned off" products? Are they simply volatilized? Its possible the disposal of oil simply leads to an atmospheric problem. Let’s hope not.

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  22. 22. jtdwyer 10:53 pm 09/1/2010

    bonderman – Good point!

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  23. 23. tichead 2:18 am 09/3/2010

    And I want the solar panels running that machine on my roof. Not only are they capable of propelling the machine, but they produce enough power to "burn off" the crude they collect. It’s a miracle! We’re healed!

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  24. 24. Oil Spill Skimmer 4:43 am 12/5/2011

    nice post regarding Oil Skimmer, its very informative and knowledgeable post for me thanks for sharing all this…

    Link to this

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