The spillage of oil into the environment is an ongoing concern. Marine oil spills draw much attention because the oil harms marine animals and floral life. Current methods to aid in cleaning up the oil include containment booms, oil skimmers, and dispersants. Chemical dispersants are a tradeoff between exposing coastal life to surface oil, and exposing aquatic life to dispersed oil. Traditional containment/diversion booms are very commonly used, but they alone cannot recover the oil. Additional machinery is necessary to aid in getting the oil out of the water. Other things such as large waves and wind can make the oil slip under or over the boom, causing it to become ineffective.

Absorbent booms, on the other hand, are useful in absorbing the oil in water, but their downfall is that they become ineffective once they have become saturated with oil. Centrifugation is energy-intensive, and in-situ burning of the spilled oil is both dangerous and dirty.

An environmentally safe method was developed to clean up, recover, and manipulate spilled oil in water and on other surfaces. The Electromagnetic Mop (EMop) also provides a solution to contain, control, and possibly stop oil leaks. The system uses a patented electromagnetic boom for use in conjunction with a method for magnetizing oil. EMop replaces the aforementioned systems in a non-toxic, safe, and efficient manner while increasing the efficiency of the remediation process.

The method adds ferrite dust filings to the viscous oil in ocean water; the dust filings mix well with the oil and form what is essentially a loose colloidal suspension that floats on water. This then renders the mixture susceptible to magnetic forces. The filings could also be coated in an environmentally safe hydrophobic solution to improve the efficiency of the process.

A permanent magnet or an electromagnet is then used to drag the solution across the surface of the water to a collection point. A demonstration was performed using a permanent magnet with surface field ~1.5 Tesla. This process quickly and efficiently pulled the oil and the filings across the surface of the water. An important effect is that the filings start to accumulate near the pole of the magnet and easily separate from the oil, leaving behind a pool of oil that can then be pumped and collected away; for example, this could be used to drag oil away from an ecologically sensitive location. As the filings accumulate at the pole of the magnet, the oil is squeezed out like water from a sponge. The filings can then be collected and easily reused right away. This method, in practice, provides a way to manipulate and control the flow of the spill. There are a vast number of possible ways to handle this magnetic mixture by utilizing magnetic forces.

Large-scale permanent magnet bars with surface magnetic fields ~1 Tesla can be made rather quickly. Electromagnets, which are also readily available, would add control flexibility for easily adjusting how strongly one could pull, push, or squeeze the EMop. The ferrite filings are environmentally safe, and most of them will be recollected and reused during the process. Thus, this method addresses long-term environmental effects as well.

To address the leak at the source, a four-walled box made of permanent magnetic material with a lid that includes a pipe can be placed in position around the leak. Instead of pumping mud or other material into this box, a much denser mixture of colloidal magnetic material (filings and oil) can be pumped from the surface into the side or bottom of the box. As the magnetic and gravitational forces act, this material will form a magnetic gasket around the pipe as the filings separate from the oil and cling to the box. The pressure from the leak will find the path of least resistance through the piped hole that flows to the surface where the oil is collected in a controlled manner. The basic principle is not to necessarily stop the leak, but to control the flow from the ocean floor, thus utilizing the natural forces rather than trying to counteract them one mile below the ocean surface.

Using this method to control the flow from the source of the leak provides time to develop an engineering solution for stopping the flow entirely in a controlled manner. This concept could work well in several arrangements, but the magnetic forces around the source of the leak will capture the ferrite and form a strong clog around the leak with the help of gravity as well — a magnetic gasket of sorts. This method has the added advantage of using some of the spilled oil from the surface as part of the solution for forming the necessary colloidal mixture.

In principle, one can also consider a further application that includes the coating of the ferrite filings with an environmentally safe, oil-absorbent material for use on land or water-free surfaces (contaminated wildlife, etc.). In this case, the magnetic force can be used to vacuum these contaminated surfaces.

For more information, contact Aaron G. Sauers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 630-840-4432.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2017 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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