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60-Second Earth

Spill Some Oil? Magnetize It for Cleanup

A physicist may have dreamed up a new way to clean up oil spills. David Biello reports

Oil and water don't mix. Despite that age-old axiom, it sure is hard to get spilled petroleum out of seawater, as was evident during BP's blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. But what if you could make oil magnetic? 

That thought came to physicist Arden Warner while he watched coverage of the spill back in 2010. And it launched some garage tinkering for Warner, who by day works on improving particle accelerators at Fermilab.

He shaved iron bits from a shovel and sprinkled them atop some engine oil. Lo and behold, a refrigerator magnet pulled the blob of oil wherever he wanted. Now he's got a patent on the concept that he’s refined over the past few years. 

The Warner method requires only a relatively small amount of magnetic metal dust. And the iron particles mix better with oil than with water, or with anything else the oil might get on, like bird feathers or plants. 

Another plus: once the oil is collected, the filings can be dried off and reused. And iron is more environmentally friendly than the chemicals currently used to disperse oil. So maybe next time there's an oil spill—and there will be a next time—we can clean up the mess with magnets.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
 

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