Tiny submarines could help clean oil-contaminated waters

A team of scientists has developed microsubmarines that could help clean up oil spills.

According to a statement, a team of scientists has reported the development and successful testing of the first self-propelled ‘microsubmarines’ designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities.

The report — published in the journal ACS Nano — concludes that these tiny machines could play an important role in cleaning up oil spills such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico.

Joseph Wang and his team, from the University of California San Diego’s nano-engineering department, developed so-called microsubmarines, which require very little fuel and move ultrafast, to see whether these small engines could help clean up oil.

Tests showed that the cone-shaped microsubmarines can collect droplets of olive oil and motor oil in water and transport them through the water.

The microsubs have a special surface coating, which makes them ‘superhydrophobic’ or extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent.

‘These results demonstrate the potential of the superhydrophobic-modified microsubmarines for facile, rapid and highly efficient collection of oils in oil-contaminated water samples,’ said the researchers.

Different versions of micro-engines have been developed, including devices that could transport medicine through the bloodstream to diseased parts of the body. But no one has ever shown that these devices — which are about 10 times smaller than the width of a human hair — could help clean up oil spills.

The project received funding from the National Science Foundation, NATO Science for Peace and Security Program, Spanish MICINN, Beatriu de Pinós (Government of Catalonia) and University of Alcalá (Madrid).