Researchers have developed a simple device that can detect an oil spill in water and then pinpoint the type of oil present on the surface. The device is designed to float on the water, where it could remotely monitor a small area susceptible to pollution or track the evolution of contamination at a particular location.

The device uses florescence from oil (left) to detect its presence and identify the type of oil. The simple device incorporates inexpensive electronic components (right). (Credit: Oscar Sampedro, Universidade de Vigo)

When crude or refined oil absorbs ultraviolet (UV) light, it emits a unique fluorescence spectrum. The new device uses this fluorescence spectrum as a fingerprint to identify the oil type by comparing the measured fluorescence with information in a database. The prototype device will have a height and diameter of about 30 centimeters, and will have the capability to send measurements to a remote user via a radio module or even by satellite modem.