Magnetic soap could lift oil spill woes

Researchers at the United Kingdom's University of Bristol have created a magnetic soap that could help revolutionize oil spill cleanups.

U.S. Coast Guard

Scientists at the U.K.'s University of Bristol have created what they say is the world's first magnetic soap, and it's gaining attention as a potential method for cleaning up oil spills.

As first reported in the Angewandte Chemie chemistry journal, the team of researchers created the magnetic soap by dissolving iron atoms, which give the soap particles a metallic center, into a chlorine and bromine solution similar to what's found in mouthwash and fabric softener.

In tests, the magnetic soap was able to overcome surface tension and gravity to rise to the magnetic source. University of Bristol

To test its magnetic properties, the group inserted a magnet into a test tube containing the soap solution, water, and oil and found that the soap was able to rise through the water and oil to reach the magnet.

Led by Professor Julian Eastoe, the researchers also say the soap's magnetic properties make it easier to round up and remove from a system and it has less of an impact on the environment.

The current problem with detergents (aka surfactants) used to clean oil spills is that they often require the addition of an electrical charge, temperature, or pressure change, or an alteration in pH, to become effective. All of these processes negatively impact the environment or cost a lot of money to implement as a corrective measure.

Though a potentially great breakthrough for oil spill cleanups, magnetic soap isn't ready for prime just yet.

"From a commercial point of view, though these exact liquids aren't yet ready to appear in any household product, by proving that magnetic soaps can be developed, future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications from water treatment to industrial cleaning products," Eastoe said.

Eastoe told the BBC that now that they've discovered the fundamentals of magnetic soap, it's "back to the drawing board to make it better."

About the author

Bonnie Cha is chief correspondent for Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

 

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