Educational Resources Lets Talk Science Challenge participants

Hands-on Activities

What is the best way to clean up an oil spill?

Summary

Learn about the properties of materials and the challenges of cleaning up an oil spill in this activity.

What You Need

  • Water
  • Aluminum tray or pie plate
  • Cooking oil (optional: dye it brown with oil colouring or cocoa)
  • Cotton balls
  • Dish detergent
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic wrap
  • Sponge pieces
  • Styrofoam
  • Shredded paper
  • Feathers - 2

 

Safety First!

Clean up any spills immediately. Spilled liquids can create slipping hazards.

What To Do 

  1. Fill the aluminum tray 2/3 full with clean water.
  2. Squirt some of the oil into the tray to make a tiny “oil slick”.
  3. Try to clean up the spill with the cotton balls, sponge pieces, styrofoam, shredded paper, and/or paper towel.
  4. Which material(s) work best?
  5. Once you are finished trying to clean up the spill, squirt a small amount of dish washing liquid into the centre of the tray and observe what happens.

Discovery

What’s happening?

The oil floats on the water because it is less dense. The cotton balls, sponges and paper towels absorb the oil and are called "sorbents". Each type of material absorbs in differing amounts depending on the pore size, which varies depending on the brand names. Styrofoam does not soak up the oil.

Once you squirt the dish washing liquid into the centre of the tray, the soap breaks the surface tension (the attraction between molecules on the surface of a liquid) of the liquids. This spreads out the water and oil molecules in the tray. This does not, however, remove the oil from the water. It merely breaks it up into smaller groups of molecules. Chemicals that separate oils into smaller groups of molecules are called dispersants.

What’s happening?

The oil floats on the water because it is less dense. The cotton balls, sponges and paper towels absorb the oil and are called "sorbents". Each type of material absorbs in differing amounts depending on the pore size, which varies depending on the brand names. Styrofoam does not soak up the oil.

Once you squirt the dish washing liquid into the centre of the tray, the soap breaks the surface tension (the attraction between molecules on the surface of a liquid) of the liquids. This spreads out the water and oil molecules in the tray. This does not, however, remove the oil from the water. It merely breaks it up into smaller groups of molecules. Chemicals that separate oils into smaller groups of molecules are called dispersants.

Why does it matter?

Oil spills are a type of pollution and can have very negative impacts on plants and animals. Birds (like ducks and penguins) use their own natural oils to keep them waterproof. A layer of air between their waterproof feathers and their skin is what keeps them warm. But the oil from an oil spill seeps into the air layer, making their feathers matted. Because the bird no longer has its layer of air, it can become very cold and die of hypothermia. Birds also try to clean the oil off their feathers, but can become poisoned or sick by swallowing the oil.

When an oil spill occurs on land, the easiest way to clean it up is to remove the contaminated soil. This soil is either treated with chemicals to remove the oil, or it is burned (the soil will not burn, only the oil). If a spill occurs on water, the oil must first be contained so it can be cleaned up using sorbents. In some cases dispersants are used, but this practice is being called into question because it does not remove the oil from the water. The smaller collection of oil molecules may settle to the bottom or may be eaten by fish. If the oil washes onto shore or gets on wildlife, it has to be cleaned off using soap and water. This is a very costly and labor intensive process, not to mention harmful to plant and animal life.

The best way we can to take care of oil spills is to prevent them from happening! New tankers have introduced a double hull (the watertight body of a boat or ship) to prevent oil spills and leaks. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that prevent tankers from sailing through wildlife areas that would be extremely sensitive to an oil spill.

Why does it matter?

Oil spills are a type of pollution and can have very negative impacts on plants and animals. Birds (like ducks and penguins) use their own natural oils to keep them waterproof. A layer of air between their waterproof feathers and their skin is what keeps them warm. But the oil from an oil spill seeps into the air layer, making their feathers matted. Because the bird no longer has its layer of air, it can become very cold and die of hypothermia. Birds also try to clean the oil off their feathers, but can become poisoned or sick by swallowing the oil.

When an oil spill occurs on land, the easiest way to clean it up is to remove the contaminated soil. This soil is either treated with chemicals to remove the oil, or it is burned (the soil will not burn, only the oil). If a spill occurs on water, the oil must first be contained so it can be cleaned up using sorbents. In some cases dispersants are used, but this practice is being called into question because it does not remove the oil from the water. The smaller collection of oil molecules may settle to the bottom or may be eaten by fish. If the oil washes onto shore or gets on wildlife, it has to be cleaned off using soap and water. This is a very costly and labor intensive process, not to mention harmful to plant and animal life.

The best way we can to take care of oil spills is to prevent them from happening! New tankers have introduced a double hull (the watertight body of a boat or ship) to prevent oil spills and leaks. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws that prevent tankers from sailing through wildlife areas that would be extremely sensitive to an oil spill.

Investigate further
  • Dip one feather into the oil spill and then compare it to the non-oily feather. What is the difference? What could this mean for a bird that is caught in an oil spill?
  • How could oil spills harm plants and animals? How do oil spills happen? (e.g., tankers, barges, pipelines, factories, storage areas).
  • What can people do to help out with oil spills? Even better, how can people prevent them?

For more information on this topic check out these Let's Talk Science resources:

 

Investigate further
  • Dip one feather into the oil spill and then compare it to the non-oily feather. What is the difference? What could this mean for a bird that is caught in an oil spill?
  • How could oil spills harm plants and animals? How do oil spills happen? (e.g., tankers, barges, pipelines, factories, storage areas).
  • What can people do to help out with oil spills? Even better, how can people prevent them?

For more information on this topic check out these Let's Talk Science resources: