The technology being used to clean up oil spills


Oil spills are dangerous for everyone involved. From workers to sea life, these spills spread quickly and are hard to contain. However, technology progresses every day, and innovations that can help are coming along.

Like many, you may remember the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. It’s one of the largest oil disasters in history, spilling around four million barrels over 87 days. Yet why did it take so long to contain? Many issues occurred at Deepwater Horizon, one of them being the lack of technology available for use. This setback led to an extensive problem that lasted almost five months, and the effects of the spill are still apparent.

Effects of oil spills

Oil spills can be deadly in a number of ways. A blowout or oil rig explosion may injure the workers or worse. Plus, the environmental impacts affect wildlife both in and out of water. Oil spills directly affect sea life as it pollutes the water and makes it unlivable for all animals. It also affects creatures like birds that sit on the surface and can get trapped in the viscous substance.

These disasters compromise environments, and people and animals that rely on the ecosystems will have difficulty living and adjusting to the oil in their water supply, crops, food and more. As a preventative measure, identifying critical factors for a spill can help decrease these issues. 

Oil is a toxic substance, so having the technology to prevent or clean up quickly after spills is essential. A rapid response is key to minimizing injuries and destruction. In recent years, experts have been developing better tech to combat this issue.

Technology for cleaning up oil spills 

The following seven innovations have been in development for years. Experts have tested and seen the success of some, while others have potential for the future.


Sponges are proving to be a powerful resource when it comes to cleaning up oil spills. One example is a giant clay sponge which, when placed in fresh or saltwater, can suck up the oil as liquid flows through. Experts mix a polymer and air with clay to get the final result. 

Another option is the Oleo Sponge, which does the same as the clay version — soaks up the oil and leaves behind the water. What appears as a standard sponge uses polyurethane to manipulate the chemistry of the oil and then absorb it.

These contraptions are critical because they can get the oil that’s below the surface of the water, which is typically harder to clean up.

Booms and Skimmers

oil boom
U.S. Coast Guard crewmembers assigned to the USCGC Oak place the Weir Skimmer into the apex of the boom, during oil skimming operations in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010. (Image courtesy Wikimedia)

Booms are floating barriers that stop the oil from spreading. When waves get too rough, though, the oil can escape these devices and spread regardless. A skimmer is an object that collects and removes oil from the surface. However, it runs into the same problem as booms when facing rough conditions. 

New tech like Wendy Schmidt’s barrel skimmer project can help with these issues. This skimmer can operate in rough waves while still separating oil and water. With it, experts could clean up the surface oil no matter the weather conditions. It can monitor the perimeter of booms, too, in order to collect any oil that escapes.


A tactic that experts commonly use during spills is spraying chemical dispersants on the oil. This method comes with pros and cons, though. The dispersants break up the oil efficiently, like detergent that experts use to clean residue off of animals. Yet some dispersants can be harmful.

The chemicals carry the oil down deeper into the ocean, exposing other animals to both the oil and the potentially harmful ingredients. It doesn’t easily biodegrade, either, so some experts believe that using dispersants can worsen the overall effects of a spill.

However, technology has helped scientists develop non-toxic alternatives to chemical dispersants like Triple7 BioConcentrate. This non-toxic cleaner is tough on all oils and isn’t harmful to marine life or the environment. A development like this will go a long way during a disaster. 

Magnetic Soap

The soap experts used to clean the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had toxic dispersants in it that don’t biodegrade and can harm wildlife. However, scientists from the University of Bristol developed an idea to get rid of chemicals in the soap and instead make it magnetic. This product would work by interacting with the oil during a spill. Once the magnetism hits the substance, they would both rise to the surface. 

This concept would make it easier for experts to clean the contaminated water right from the surface. It also reduces the need for dispersants or adding harmful chemicals to the water. 

Peat Moss

Peat moss has been used to clean up oil spills in Norway.
Peat moss has been used to clean up oil spills in Norway.

Peat moss is another unsuspecting resource that can effectively help clean spills. Scientists in Norway discovered that this material successfully absorbs oil.

The company Kallak Torvstrøfabrikk developed an absorbent for oil spills and tested it out to discover its ability. On contact, the peat moss absorbs the oil and retains it without letting water penetrate or permeate through it. Once the oil is inside, the peat moss maintains its texture without any stickiness, allowing experts to remove it from the water quickly. 

Peat moss is 100% organic and proved itself to be a powerful resource when in crisis. In 2009, experts used it in an oil spill off the coast of Norway, and it worked successfully.

Flame Refluxer

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, researchers developed a tool helpful in burning oil, the Flame Refluxer. Burning on the ocean surface is a common tactic that helps quickly get rid of oil. However, it does give off various harmful emissions in the process. The Flame Refluxer is working to combat these issues. The device burns faster and hotter than most fires, speeding the process up.

This inexpensive tool sits on top of a spill as its coils react with the oil to start a fire. The device control fires and reduces smoke and tar-like residue from the burnt substance. Developers hope it will also mitigate any harmful emissions the fires give off.

Blowout preventers

A blowout preventer (BOP) does as the name implies — works to prevent a blowout from happening. It monitors oil wells during production and seals or controls them during instances of a potential issue. However, as you can see with Deepwater Horizon, the BOP did not work, and the oil rig still blew. 

With new technology like Deepwater Subsea, though, oil rigs have better analytics, BOP pressure testing and more. This system provides workers with improved tools to monitor and control BOPs. This technology can altogether prevent the need for an oil cleanup when the BOP never fails.

Technology and the future of oil spills

As long as humans continue to use oil, the possibility of spills exists. However, preventing and cleaning up after these disasters can become easier with improved technology. 

What do you think about some of the recent advances in technology that help prevent and clean up oil spills? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter, Facebook, or MeWe.

Last Updated on February 3, 2021.

Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010.

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