A decade after a BP drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, sending an estimated 168 million gallons of oil gushing into the water over the course of months, local wildlife is still struggling to recover. Many of the people who worked to clean up the spill are still experiencing health effects.
At the time, the “cleanup” strategy involved setting oil slicks on fire and spraying mass quantities of a chemical meant to disperse it, both of which helped get rid of the oil, but also worsened pollution.
A new robot designed to clean oil spills, now in development, demonstrates how future spills could be handled differently. The robot navigates autonomously on the ocean surface, running on solar power. When oil sensors on the device detect a spill, it triggers a pump that pushes oil and water inside, where a custom nanomaterial sucks up the oil and releases clean water.
While some other nanomaterials are now in use in oil spills, the new material is unique in that it’s made from leaves rather than fossil fuels. And while current processes still involve burning oil at the site of the spill, the new material can recover the oil. The robot, which is an entry in the 2020 James Dyson Award competition, can go out, collect the oil, and come back, and then the oil would be removed from the sponge-like material, which can be reused as many as 180 times.
The device was designed by Tejas Sanjay Kabra, a graduate student at North Carolina State University. He hopes to bring the product to market as quickly as possible, as major oil spills continue to occur.