Microsubmarines: small technology for a big problem.

Photo by Green Fire Productions | flickr.com

Photo by Green Fire Productions | flickr.com

With around 14,000 oils spills reported each year in the United States, it is important to have effective tools in our arsenal to deal with this problem. Oil spills can have a myriad of impacts from hurting fragile marine ecosystems affecting tourism and the seafood industry. Because of this, experts are looking to develop alternate methods to manage these spills.

The method used to clean up these oil spills is dependent on a number of variables including weather conditions, the magnitude of the spill and the amount of time required for first response. Some commonly used methods include containment, slicking, in situ burning, dispersants, and biological agents. While all these methods can clean up the spills with some effectiveness, they are not perfect solutions with some actually being harmful to marine organisms. For example, the mixture of dispersants (chemicals used to break down the oil) and oil has been shown to be worse for coral reefs than just the raw crude oil by itself. Because of these shortcomings associated with current modes of spill clean up, the development of new methods is an important area of research.

In order to come up with an innovative solution, some experts have turned to fields that have traditionally not been considered. One example comes from a group of researchers from the University of Southern California in the department of nano-engineering. Inspired by past research done on micromachines used for drug delivery through the human bloodstream, these “microsubmarines” are tiny (8 micrometers long), self-propelling, and can shepherd oil from spills to designated collection sites.

The way that these microsubmarines do this is by being coated in a material that is highly effective in repelling water. This coating also helps to attract oil particles while easily travelling through water. The machines propel themselves through an internal chemical reaction of hydrogen peroxide reacting with water. This produces gas bubbles that allow them to move forward. The idea is that these microsubmarines will attract oil droplets, moving them to a collection area using a magnetic field.

While this technology sounds promising, there are still some issues with this technology. As mentioned before with other, the effect of these microsubmarines on marine ecosystems might be detrimental. Large-scale tests need to be performed before this technology is adopted. However, it's something substantial to add to the collection of potential methods of cleaning up oil spills.