Dropping the Soap: Iron-Infused Suds Could Make Oil Cleanup a Cinch

By Vivian Cheng

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig collapsed in 2010, oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico far faster than federal officials had predicted. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s estimates grew from 5,000 to as much 19,000 barrels a day of leaking black crude. With that much oil flowing into the water daily, coming up with an environmentally friendly way to clean up the oil was a challenge.

Although the oil was largely dispersed, it came at a cost. Most solutions – particularly those involving cleaning up oil – call for putting more chemicals in the water, which creates another problem. A lot of the chemicals in soaps can harm plants and animals, and the goal is to save as much life as we can, not kill it. To disperse millions of gallons of oil, you need millions of gallons of chemicals, and each chemical carries its own risks.

Close up of oil soap that cleans up oil spills

Thankfully, the disaster spurred innovation into new methods of oil control and cleanup. Scientists have tried and tested different ways to make soap more convenient and environmentally friendly – soap that is either easily retrievable or easily broken down by natural processes. Research has created soaps that break down in sunlight and other soaps that respond to certain pH levels. One particularly novel result: iron soap.

Iron Soap: Cleaning Up Oil Spills With Magnets

University of Bristol chemistry professor Julian Eastoe and his team developed the new solution: soap that reacts to a magnetic field. The soap is made of iron-rich salts and is easily dissolved in water. It contains several soapy solutions, the same kind that you would find in your mouthwash or fabric softener. Having the iron in the soap creates a metallic center, which makes it much easier to remove the soap from the water using run-of-the-mill magnets.

Iron infused magnetic soap that cleans up oil spills

Eastoe has tested this soap by putting the soap in a test tube and then pouring less dense solvents on top of it so the soap remained at the bottom of the test tube. Using a magnet, Eastoe found that the soap could easily be retrieved from the bottom of the test tube – attracted by the magnetic field, the soap particles floated up through the solvents.

Equally intriguing, the iron makes it easy for producers to adjust the electrical conductivity and melting point of the soap, all by applying the proper magnetic field.

This new magnetic soap won’t be available to consumers any time soon (although it’s easy to imagine someone trying to sell ‘magnetic soap’ with mystical cure-all properties), but it is a breakthrough that could lead to new cleanup solutions in an assortment of other “dirty” industries.

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