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Magnetic Separation Method for Oil Spill Cleanup

Prof. Markus Zahn

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

MIT Energy Initiative

Research Laboratory of Electronics

Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems

Oil spills have devastating environmental consequences as evident by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster
in the Gulf of Mexico. This work describes a new five step magnetic separation process for oil spill cleanup
that maximizes oil recovery:

1. Pump the sea water and oil spill mixture out of the ocean and onto a boat or land oil/water treatment

2. Add oleophilic/hydrophobic (oil loving/water hating) or hydrophilic/oleophobic (water loving, oil

hating) magnetic nanoparticles to the oil/water mixture on the boat. The magnetic nanoparticles will
preferentially attach to the oil or water phase respectively making it magnetic.

3. Use an optimized array of permanent magnets to cleanly separate the magnetic oil from water or
magnetic water from oil.

4. Once the oil is separated from the water, use suction pressure to move the magnetic fluid through a high
gradient magnetic separator (HGMS) to remove the magnetic nanoparticles from the oil or water for re-use.
The clean water can be returned to the ocean.

5. Now that the recovered oil is free of nanoparticles and water it can be directed into a pipeline for
transport to an oil refinery or to other locations.

I. Project Description

1. Introduction. Current oil spill technologies involve using booms and skimmers to separate the spilled floating
oil from the sea water. Booms are floating skirts that help contain the spilled oil area so that skimmers can have a
higher oil recovery efficiency. There are various types of floating skimmers (drum, rope, belt, weir) and they all
work by separating the floating oil from the water using adsorbent oleophilic brushes. Other skimmer technologies
include weir skimmers and suction skimmers [1, 2].

Although these technologies exist their oil recovery efficiency is greatest (95%) in calm waters and can be as low as
2% in open choppy waters [1, 2]. Other technologies utilize the density differences between oil and water and are
either energy intensive (centrifugation) or take a long time for separation (gravity separation tanks).

The use of significantly greater magnetic forces motivate using a magnetic separation methodology for increasing
oil recovery efficiency in an oil spill. Using magnetic methods for oil spill cleanup has been explored before, but its
prior implementations were limited in several practical considerations. This work describes the prior work, its
limitations and an improved system that allows for a continuous, environmentally safe and energy efficient oil
separation system that could significantly improve current oil spill cleanup technologies.
2. Requirements for oil-water separation as applied to oil spills. To compare the differences between this paper's
proposed magnetic separation methodology and prior work, it is necessary to define a set of requirements by which
to compare. Oil-water 2

separations as applied to oil spills should satisfy the following set of requirements:

1. Methodology and materials should be continuous, reusable and environmentally safe.

2. Methodology should be robust in a marine environment.

3. Methodology should require minimal external energy and materials.

4. Methodology should work when there is a variable amount of oil and water in the mixture.

3. Proposed Improved Magnetic Separation Methodology.

3.1 Five Step Process. The magnetic separation system is described in detail in this section with Fig. 1 representing
a cartoon diagram of a possible oil/water magnetic separation facility onboard a vessel.

Fig. 1. Embodiment of the oil/water magnetic separation process onboard a vessel. Existing oil spill cleanup
technology such as a belt skimmer (1) collects oil and water that is pumped onboard a treatment facility on ship (1a).
Add magnetic material to magnetize one of oil or water phases before (2a) separating the magnetic phase from the
non-magnetic phase in the first magnetic separation step (3). This magnetic separation process may be continually
repeated if needed until the magnetic phase is sufficiently separated from the non-magnetic phase (3a). The clean
water is disposed of into the ocean if it is the non-magnetic phase (5b). The magnetic phase is pumped into the
second magnetic separation system to separate the magnetic material from the magnetic phase (4). This separation
process is continually repeated until sufficient magnetic material is removed (4a) and if the magnetic phase was
water, the magnetic-free water is disposed off into the ocean. The magnetic material is reused to process more
collected oil and water (4b) while the oil is stored on board the ship or pumped through a pipeline to be ultimately
transported to a refinery or other location [3].

3.2 Step 1: Collecting water-oil mixture. Current skimmer and boom technology work well in calm waters. In
choppy waters, the percentage of oil recovered is reduced due to the collection of water and air in addition to oil. In
either case, water and oil collected by the skimmer and boom system will be supplemented with large pumps that
will transfer both liquids to an oil recovery system onboard a confined space on a ship or shore location where the
magnetic separation of oil and water is done, and not in the open waters.

3.3 Step 2: Magnetizing One of Two Liquid Phases.

3.3.1 Necessary Considerations. An important requirement is to carry out the magnetization stage in a separate
confined area, on board a ship or skimmer, but not in the open ocean. This would not only eliminate the potential
environmental damage of dispersing magnetic materials into the open water but will also reduce the loss of
recyclable magnetizable material due to wind and water currents.

This step involves magnetizing either the oil or water phase using chemical methods. In principle, either phase could
be selected to be magnetized but magnetizing the oil phase has the advantage of using less quantity of magnetizable
material if the collection (skimmer) stage is not very efficient and also leaves the water phase magnetic particle free

so that clean water is returned to the ocean without concern about the efficiency of magnetic particle removal.

There are ample chemical technologies available to magnetize either the oil or water phase for oil spill recovery. The
following describes some of the various technologies that have been developed.
3.3.2 Magnetic Pickering Emulsions. Pickering emulsions are stabilized by solid particles which reside on the
interface between the dispersed and continuous phases. The contact angle the particle makes (wettability) at the
interface determines whether the emulsion is an oil in water (o/w) or water in oil (w/o) emulsion. If the solid
particles used are superparamagnetic, the stable droplets can be physically controlled using magnetic fields. The
droplet can also be burst to release its contained phase at a critical applied magnetic field strength [4].

3.3.3 Magnetorheological Fluid. Micron-sized magnetic particles, with appropriate oleophilic surfactants, could be
used to make the collected oil phase magnetic. The particles used are usually micron sized and as a result could
settle out of solution due to gravity. The disadvantage of using larger magnetic particles is that they are no longer
single domain and so oppositely directed domains give a partial cancellation of the magnetic field inside and outside
the particle. However, this disadvantage can be overcome if strong external magnetic fields are imposed that destroy
domain walls so that the large magnetic particles have a large uniform magnetic field when magnetized to saturation

3.3.4 Magnetic Nanoparticle Suspension (Ferrofluid). Single domain magnetic nanoparticles can be coated with an
(i) oleophilic stabilizing surfactant (to prevent magnetic particle agglomeration) and dispersed into the oil phase to
make it magnetic or (ii) hydrophilic stabilizing surfactant and dispersed into the water phase to make it magnetic.
The magnetic nanoparticles have a small diameter (≈10 nm) to prevent agglomeration due to gravity and are
dispersed due to Brownian motion. Environmentally safe magnetic nanoparticles (Fe3O4 or Fe2O3) with oleic acid
surfactants can be easily synthesized [5]. In addition, by controlling the magnetic volume fraction of the dispersed
magnetic nanoparticles the magnetization of the resulting suspension can be controlled making this technology a
very attractive and simple method for oil spill recovery.

3.4 Step 3: First Magnetic Separation Step: Separation of magnetic oil and non-magnetic water or separation of
magnetic water from non-magnetic oil. As described in Section 3.3 there are several methods of magnetizing the oil
or water phases. The next step is to transport the oil-water mixture to a treatment apparatus which uses a new
magnetic separation method to separate the magnetic from the non-magnetic liquid phase. In the past,
electromagnets have been suggested to separate a floating magnetic oil phase from non-magnetic water [6-8].
However, we use a novel permanent magnet separation technique for separating a mixture of magnetic and non-
magnetic liquid phases, in our case oil and water, where the magnetic phase is attracted to the cylindrical magnet
pole that sticks out above the oil-water interface. The permanent magnets are arranged such that the magnetic fluid
can only be attracted to the top magnetic pole and not the opposite bottom pole that is extended below the chamber
holding the oil-water mixture. A one sided magnetic flux configuration (Halbach array) can also increase the
efficiency of separation [9-11]. This apparatus cleanly separates the magnetic from non-magnetic liquids as seen in
Fig. 2.

3.5 Step 4: Second Magnetic Separation Step: Removal of magnetic nanoparticles from magnetic liquid phase. The
previous magnetic separation step separates a mixture of a magnetic liquid phase from a non-magnetic liquid phase.
Now that the magnetic phase has been separated, the magnetic particles can be retrieved using a high gradient
magnetic separator (HGMS) and then reused in step 2 to make either oil or water phases magnetic. By removing the
magnetic nanoparticles, they can be reused in a continuous process to separate additional oil from water [12-16].

3.6 Step 5: Storage and Disposal. The individual steps 2-4 can be repeated to 4

increase the efficiency of the separated oil and water if necessary. The processed oil can be stored on board the boat
as shown in Fig. 1, or pumped to a tanker at sea or onto a land facility. The clean water is released back into the

4. Comparison with Other Prior Work. The concept of using magnetic methods for oil-water separation of oil
spills is not new. However, the prior art either does not meet with some of the requirements outlined in section 2 or
is different from this process in some fundamental way.
One major difference is that the method outlined here does not disperse any magnetic material in the open ocean
unlike prior art [6-8, 17]. Instead the oil or water phase is collected in a confined area where magnetic particles can
be added to one phase without the concern of the resulting magnetic fluid sinking to the bottom of the ocean due to
ocean turbulence and the increased mass density of the magnetic particle suspension over that of water. Instead, the
magnetic particle suspension could sink to the bottom of the confined process area and will still be separated by the
permanent magnet array of Step 3. As a result, the oil or water phase can be made as magnetic as possible for
efficient separation in Step 3.

A good reason for magnetizing one phase in a confined area is preventing loss of magnetic material if dispensed into
the open waters, not to mention possible environmental damage and loss of recyclable magnetic material. In [6, 7],
magnetic nanoparticles with oleophilic surfactants are first mixed into already refined oil that is chosen to be
miscible with the spilled oil. This ferrofluid is then dispersed over the oil slick to convert the spilled oil into a
ferrofluid, albeit with diluted magnetic properties from the initial ferrofluid. The environmental damage of further
adding an oil based ferrofluid to already spilled oil, if not 100% recovered, would be serious. Another advantage to
our method proposed here is the use of permanent magnets, for Steps 3 and 4, unlike electromagnets, used in
reference [6-8], that would require transporting a significant power source to the site of the oil spill, which can be
unsafe in a marine environment.

With HGMS, the recovered magnetic nanoparticles would leave the separated oil useful for refining and the
magnetic nanoparticles can be reused for magnetizing more collected oil.

5. Conclusion. The oil recovery efficiency using current oil spill cleanup technologies (booms and skimmers) can
be greatly improved by cascading the collected oil/water mixture with this new magnetic separation technique. In
the preferred embodiment the collected oil phase is magnetized in a confined area (without trading off density and
magnetization of the oil phase) using environmentally safe Fe3O4/Fe2O3 magnetic nanoparticles with oleic acid or
other safe surfactants.

Confining the magnetization Step 2 also allows for minimal loss of material compared to dispersing magnetic
material on the open water. The magnetic phase is then separated from the non-magnetic liquid phase using a novel
permanent magnet separator, requiring no external energy. The magnetic nanoparticles are then separated from the
magnetic phase using a HGMS system allowing for the magnetic nanoparticles to be recycled. These steps can be
repeated to increase the oil recovery efficiency and minimize the oil remaining in the water.

The five step magnetic separation method outlined in this paper would be an effective add-on to current oil spill
technologies increasing their oil recovery efficiency.

6. Video Demonstration. This process can be seen in operation on our Sept. 12, 2012 MIT spotlight at:
http://mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/how-to-clean-up-oil-spills-0912.html. Complete pictures and videos demonstrating
the magnetic oil/water separation process can be downloaded from the respective website URLs (Recommended
video player is VLC player): http://www.rle.mit.edu/cehv/MagneticSeparation/SeparationPics.zip ,