Sorbent Science: Cleaning Up Oil Spills
Have you ever seen news coverage or other pictures of an oil spill in the ocean and wondered how all of that oil could be cleaned up? Oil spills can devastate wildlife by covering them with oil, and they can damage our precious water resources by contaminating them with oil. Part of the problem of managing oil spills is that the oil can be challenging to clean up. In this science activity, you can test the absorptivity of different materials (called sorbents) to discover which ones are best at removing oil from water.
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.
Stop, look down, and wiggle your toes. If you’re wearing shoes, chances are good that some part of those shoes is made from petroleum oil. Now look at the fabric of your clothes, chair cushion, bedspread, carpet and drapes. Many of these fabrics were made from oil. If you wander into the kitchen, you may find fruits and vegetables grown with the help of fertilizers and pesticides, also oil-containing products. If you head to the bathroom, you might find medicines, lotions, toothpaste, shampoos and bandages made from oil. Oil products are everywhere, including outdoors: car tires, roads and the fuel that powers most cars.
Because oil is used in so many ways, great amounts of it are carried long distances to factories that turn it into the products that keep society running. Every day, millions of barrels of oil are moved around, mostly on tankers carrying more than 200,000 tons each. Occasionally these tankers have accidents, or oil rigs are damaged, and oil spills into the ocean. One way environmental engineers try to clean up oil spills is with sorbents, materials good at absorbing liquids. If you’ve used a sponge, paper towel or kitty litter, you’ve already used a sorbent.
Extra: This science activity let you investigate which sorbent was the best based on the volume of oil and water it absorbed. Figure out a way to instead investigate how well the different sorbents work based on the mass of the water and oil they can absorb. Which sorbent is the best by mass?
Extra: Investigate how well the different sorbents work over time. Which sorbent is the best by time?
Observations and Results
If you tested them, did cotton balls and fur absorb oil better than coconut husks and feathers?
In this activity, you tested some common household materials for their ability to act as good sorbents for vegetable oil. The original ratio of water to vegetable oil in the measuring cup was three, since three cups of water and one cup of vegetable oil were used (and three divided by one equals three). Consequently, sorbents that absorbed more oil than water (“good” sorbents) would have a ratio greater than three, while sorbents that absorbed more water than oil (poorer sorbents for oil) would have a ratio smaller than three. If you tested cotton balls and dog fur, you may have found they were relatively good sorbents, with a ratio of remaining water to remaining oil being around five or above. On the other hand, if you tested coconut husks and feathers you may have found that they were poorer sorbents, with a ratio of three or lower. To selectively absorb oil from oil spills in the ocean, a sorbent would need a relatively high ratio.
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Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
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