Armies of Microsubmarines Could Clean Up Oil Spills

ACS Nano/Promo image

There's something extra fascinating about technologies developed at the micro and nano scale and these microsubmarines developed by University of California - San Diego scientists are no exception. The tiny machines are able to absorb and transport oil droplets in water, meaning they could be our next go-to solution for cleaning up oil spills.

As reported by Gizmag, the microsubmarines were based on microtube engines that were created to deliver medicine through the bloodstream of the human body. The submarines are eight micrometers long -- ten times smaller than the width of a human hair -- and are propelled by an inner layer of hydrogen peroxide that reacts with the liquid they're submerged in to produce bubbles and shoot them forward. The submarines have a cone-shaped front end and are coated with a "superhydrophobic,” or extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent, coating that helps them to glide through the water but also absorb any oil droplets along the way.

ACS Nano/Promo image

The scientists put them to the test in water that contained motor oil and olive oil, where the submarines were able to effectively gather and transport oil droplets. Larger-scale tests would have to be performed before sending these guys out into open water, especially concerning how they might contaminate the water themselves or affect sea life, but the idea is that armies (navies?) of these submarines could be deployed at oil spill sites to gather and then move oil to a collection area, guided by magnetic or electrical fields.

These microsubmarines join nanosponges, robotic sail boats and other technologies in providing us with possible next-generation solutions to oil spills that could replace chemical dispersants and booms and bring us clean waterways more quickly.

Tags: Nanotechnology | Oil Spill | Pollution | Technology