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Good News: Oil spills can be cleaned by Magnetic Extraction

Monday June 09, 2014


"Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new technique for magnetically separating oil and water that could be used to clean up oil spills. If comes out to be successful, the new technique will improve efficiency, as the method will allow oil to be collected and sent to a refinery to be reprocessed."


HNF Correspondent


Good news for the marine ecologists and wildlife lovers as they may not have to be worried much for an oil spill or, if a ship sinks into the sea like that happened 3 years back with 'Black Rose’ off the Paradip coast in Odisha.

“Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new technique for magnetically separating oil and water that could be used to clean up oil spills,” says a news release by Larry Hardesty of MIT News Office adding that, if comes out to be successful, “The new technique will improve efficiency, as the method will allow oil to be collected and sent to a refinery to be reprocessed.”

In the MIT researchers’ scheme, water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles would be mixed with the oil, which could then be separated from the water using magnets.


The researchers envision that the process would take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. Afterward, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil and reused.

Shahriar Khushrushahi, a post-doc in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is lead author on the paper, joined by Markus Zahn, the Thomas and Gerd Perkins Professor of Electrical Engineering, and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering. The team has also filed two patents on its work. The researchers will present their work at the International Conference on Magnetic Fluids in January.

Orthogonal thinking

The MIT researchers vary the conventional approach in two major ways: They orient their magnets perpendicularly to the flow of the stream, not parallel to it; and they immerse the magnets in the stream, rather than positioning them outside of it.

The magnets are permanent magnets, and they’re cylindrical. Because a magnet’s magnetic field is strongest at its edges, the tips of each cylinder attract the oil much more powerfully than its sides do. In experiments the MIT researchers conducted in the lab, the bottoms of the magnets were embedded in the base of a reservoir that contained a mixture of water and magnetic oil; consequently, oil couldn’t collect around them. The tops of the magnets were above water level, and the oil shot up the sides of the magnets, forming beaded spheres around the magnets’ ends.

The design is simple, but it provides excellent separation between oil and water. Moreover, Khushrushahi says, simplicity is an advantage in a system that needs to be manufactured on a large scale and deployed at sea for days or weeks, where electrical power is scarce and maintenance facilities limited. “The process may seem simple,” he says, “but it is, inherently, supposed to be simple.”

Leaving the lab

Whether the Halbach array would be the most practical way to remove oil from the cylindrical magnets in an actual oil-recovery system remains to be seen. The researchers also need to determine how much water gets dissolved in the oil, and how it can best be removed. “To our eye, you don’t see much moisture in there, but I’m sure that there is some moisture that adheres to it,” Zahn says. “We might have to run it through multiple cycles.” On a commercial scale, it could make sense for an oil-recovery vessel to perform an initial separation of oil and water and then haul the oil ashore for further refinement.

“This oil-spill problem has not really been worked on intensively that I know of, and of course it’s a big problem,” says Ronald Rosensweig, a former Exxon researcher and a pioneer in the study of ferrofluids who wrote the field’s first textbook. “You could think of separating oil from water by centrifuging or something like that, but in a lot of cases, the fluids are pretty much equal in density: Some of the oil sinks, some of it floats, and a lot of it is in between. The magnetic hook could, hopefully, make separation faster and better.”

Adding nanoparticles to oil mixed with water to produce a ferrofluid aboard a ship should be “no problem,” and with a technique called high-gradient magnetic separation, “It’s known that the gradient can pull the particles out of suspension,” says Rosensweig assuming that recovering both the nanoparticles and the oil is feasible.

Because Oil spills can have disastrous impact on coastal environment and complete marine ecosystem, this new technology would be highly helpful in mitigating such damages.


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