Merlino: New discovery bodes well for future of oil-damaged coastlines

For over a century, human progress has been synonymous with the extraction of natural resources. As is human nature, however, we occasionally make mistakes. One mistake that is a great threat to our environmental ecosystems and humanity’s well-being is oil spills.

Marine oil spills have the ability to travel vast distances from the originating area of the spill, contaminating valuable coastline and coastal soil. There are several ways to combat oil spills, but none prove to be greatly effective. Oftentimes it is difficult to avoid inflicting damage to the sea or coastline.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, current marine oil spill cleaning techniques include mechanical containment or recovery, chemical and biological methods and physical cleaning methods. The technology used has been roughly unchanged over the past couple decades, but we need to start looking for environmentally sustainable alternatives if we intend to have oceanic ecosystems able to sustain life for future generations.

Large spills such as the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 are becoming ever more frequent. This event released 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Floating booms composed of plastic and fabric were used to trap oil in specific areas, enabling it to be skimmed or vacuumed from the surface. Estimates place the crude oil cleaned up by BP at about 6 million gallons, but 204 million still remained.

BP used chemical dispersants to hide the mess they made in the Gulf. BP sprayed over 1.8 million gallons of Corexit EC9500. According to TakePart, Corexit emulsifies crude oil into tiny droplets heavier than water, causing them to fall to the oceanic floor. This is used as an alternative to oil reaching coastlines and endangering those ecosystems, and it was an effective way to hide a detrimental environmental disaster.

What we do know about the makeup of Corexit EC9500 is that its main component, 2-butoxyethanol, has been identified as one of the agents that caused liver, kidney, lung, nervous system and blood disorders among Alaskan cleanup crews following the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. According to Motherboard, Corexit EC9500 became 52 times more toxic than the crude oil itself when combined with oil. This imposes negative ramifications on the ecosystem and its inhabitants, causing health and safety issues in both the wildlife and human populations.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, however. Physicist Arden Warner from Fermilab in Illinois has been studying the smallest particles of matter and was inspired by the Deepwater Horizon to focus on oil recovery and cleanup. His new discovery enables him to organically magnetize oil. Using fine particles of magnetite and placing it on the oil, Warner was able to develop a bond and react to a magnetic current. This uses naturally occurring mineral with no adverse effects.

Warner’s electromagnetic-driven boom will move the oil across an axis until it reaches a conveyer belt system that is also magnetic. The excess water will drip off the belt while delivering the magnetized oil to a separation container with a magnetic bottom. The magnetite will naturally go to the bottom, while the oil and any remaining water separate. Because there will be no chemicals used in the cleanup, the oil, water and magnetite will all be reusable after.

Although this technology is still in its primitive stages, there is hope for the future. With our current daily petroleum imports of 10.6 million barrels, the probabilities of oil spills occurring are inevitable. But with people like Arden Warner forging a path towards a safer future, the earth’s future inhabitants will hopefully be able to enjoy a clean environment.