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Clean Up Oil Spills with Nanotechnology

Oil spills, like the one involving British Petroleum in 2010, can be devastating to our environment, costly, and deadly to marine life and birds. Nanotechnology may hold some promise for helping clean up such spills more quickly and efficiently.

MIT researchers report that they have developed a nanomaterial that can absorb as much as 20 times its weight in oil. According to Francesco Stellacci, who is leading the research team, "What we found is that we can make 'paper' from an interwoven mesh of nanowires that is able to selectively absorb hydrophobic liquids — oil-like liquids — from water." In addition, the nanowire mat can be recycled and used several times.

Folks at MIT are also working on robots that could troll the surface of water, gather oil in this nanowire mat, and process it on the spot. Called Seaswarm, this robot system will act like a swarm of bees working to suck up oil — without human involvement.

The robots will actually be able to communicate wirelessly and use GPS to monitor their own location so they can spread out evenly over a spill site. The swarm detects the edge of the spill area, and works inward.

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