Weird Science Kids
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Lets have some good old fashioned science fun and do an experiment to find out which materials
best clean up an oil spill. We will use a super absorbent polymer called a hydrogel (also known as
water gel or slush powder) to conduct our experiment. The polymer is the same stuff used in baby
diapers. We will turn the oil into a solid then scoop it out! In the process we will learn about how oil
spills effect the environment.
- Hydrogel or Slush Powder
- Motor Oil
- Clear Plastic Cup
Process for the Oil Spill Science Experiment
1) Pour water into the cleat plastic cup until its about 1/2 way full.
2) Begin adding the motor oil until you have a nice oil slick on top of the water.
3) Note what occurs when the oil comes is added to the water?
4) Take a spoon and start sprinkling some Hydrogel / slush powder onto the top of the oil slick
5) Wait a few minutes and watch what happens to the oil.
6)Take a large spoon and scoop out the oil now that is has transformed from a hard to handle liquid
into an easy to scoop solid.
Watch The Polymer Hydrogel Oil Experiment Video
The Science Behind the Oil Spill Experiment
Water Gels are super absorbent polymers. Polymers are long chains of molecules that are linked
together. Things made of plastic are polymers. Water Gels can absorb up to 1000 times their weight
in water. Common uses for water gels or Hydrogels is in baby diapers. Other uses include farming
where it is mixed into the soil to allow for better water retention. There are other polymers out there
which are specifically made to absorb oil or hydrocarbons.
An oil spill is the release of a liquid petroleum hydrocarbon into the environment due to human
activity, and is a form of pollution. The term often refers to marine oil spills, where oil is released into
the ocean or coastal waters. The oil may be a variety of materials, including crude oil, refined
petroleum products (such as gasoline or diesel fuel) or by-products, ships' bunkers, oily refuse or oil
mixed in waste. Spills take months or even years to clean up. Oil also enters the marine environment
from natural oil seeps. Most human-made oil pollution comes from land-based activity, but public
attention and regulation has tended to focus most sharply on seagoing oil tankers.
Environmental Effects Of Oil Spills
The oil penetrates up the structure of the plumage of birds, reducing its insulating ability, and so
making the birds more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations and much less buoyant in the water. It
also impairs birds' flight abilities to forage and escape from predators. As they attempt to preen, birds
typically ingest oil that covers their feathers, causing kidney damage, altered liver function, and
digestive tract irritation. This and the limited foraging ability quickly causes dehydration and metabolic
imbalances. Hormonal balance alteration including changes in luteinizing protein can also result in
some birds exposed to petroleum. Most birds affected by an oil spill die unless there is human
Marine mammals exposed to oil spills are affected in similar ways as seabirds. Oil coats the fur of
Sea otters and seals, reducing its insulation abilities and leading to body temperature fluctuations
and hypothermia. Ingestion of the oil causes dehydration and impaired digestions.
Because oil floats on top of water, less light penetrates into the water, limiting the photosynthesis of
marine plants and phytoplankton. This, as well as decreasing the fauna populations, affects the food
chain in the ecosystem.
A sheen is usually dispersed (but not cleaned up) with detergents which makes oil settle to the
bottom. Oils that are denser than water, such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can be more
difficult to clean as they make the seabed toxic.
Methods For Cleaning Oil Spills
- Bioremediation: use of microorganisms or biological agents to break down or remove oil
- Bioremediation Accelerator: Oleophilic, hydrophobic chemical, containing no bacteria, which
chemically and physically bonds to both soluble and insoluble hydrocarbons. The
bioremedation accelerator acts as a herding agent in water and on the surface, floating
molecules to the surface of the water, including solubles such as phenols and BTEX, forming
gel-like agglomerations. Non-detectable levels of hydrocarbons can be obtained in produced
water and manageable water columns. By over spraying sheen with bio remediation
accelerator, sheen is eliminated within minutes. Whether applied on land or on water, the
nutrient-rich emulsion, creates a bloom of local, indigenous, pre-existing, hydrocarbon-
consuming bacteria. Those specific bacteria break down the hydrocarbons into water and
carbon dioxide, with EPA tests showing 98% of alkanes biodegraded in 28 days; and
aromatics being biodegraded 200 times faster than in nature.
- Controlled burning can effectively reduce the amount of oil in water, if done properly. But it can
only be done in low wind, and can cause air pollution.
- Dispersants act as detergents, clustering around oil globules and allowing them to be carried
away in the water. This improves the surface aesthetically, and mobilizes the oil. Smaller oil
droplets, scattered by currents, may cause less harm and may degrade more easily. But the
dispersed oil droplets infiltrate into deeper water and can lethally contaminate coral. Recent
research indicates that some dispersant are toxic to corals.
- Watch and wait: in some cases, natural attenuation of oil may be most appropriate, due to the
invasive nature of facilitated methods of remediation, particularly in ecologically sensitive
- Dredging: for oils dispersed with detergents and other oils denser than water.
- Skimming: Requires calm waters
Equipment Used to Clean Up Oil Spills
- Booms: large floating barriers that round up oil and lift the oil off the water
- Skimmers: skim the oil
- Sorbents: large absorbents that absorb oil
- Chemical and biological agents: helps to break down the oil
- Vacuums: remove oil from beaches and water surface
- Shovels and other road equipments: typically used to clean up oil on beaches
- Certain Products such as Nokomis 3