Recyclable agent could recover spilt oil

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A team of chemists led by Dr George John, associate professor at the City College of New York (CCNY), has developed a non-toxic, recyclable agent that can solidify oil on salt water so that it can be scooped up like the fat that forms on the top of a pot of chilled chicken soup.

The agent could potentially be used to recover oil lost in the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Prof John said.

In the laboratory, Prof John and colleagues added a sugar compound mixed in alcohol to diesel oil floating on top of a saline solution. ’Within five minutes, the oil had gelled into a substance thick enough to be scooped up,’ he said. Then the team separated 80 per cent of the oil from the gel using a vacuum-distillation process.

The gelling agent developed by the university team is environmentally benign. It uses a sugar-based molecule that can be obtained from renewable sources and is biodegradable. In addition, only a relatively small amount of the agent − five per cent of the volume of the oil being recovered − is required for the process, which handles a range of oil, from crude to vegetable, to work.

The BP oil spill, which began on 24 April, has been pouring oil into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 40,000 barrels a day.

Current clean-up methods, which have been in use for more than 40 years, include burning, skimming oil and using chemical dispersants. The latter can be toxic to marine life and may have unknown long-term cumulative effects on the environment, Prof John pointed out.