Can Nanotechnology Help with the Oil Spill in the Gulf?

When I saw the initial news reports on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, after I shook my head in despair for that region already struck by Hurricane Katrina just five years ago, I thought of how long it would take for people to turn to nanotechnology for a possible solution to clean up the mess.

I guess I wasn’t the only person to think this as the blog Nanopatents and Innovations pulled out at least four patents and/or innovations in nanomaterials that address the cleanup or remediation of oil spills.

Now as anyone who is familiar with how technologies are developed knows it is a far cry from securing a patent to getting it do something in the real world.

So to get a sense of where we really are I wanted to get the perspective of my colleague, Tim Harper, who in addition to being a noted expert on the commercialization of nanotechnologies also has devoted his attention to the use of nanotechnologies in cleantech including its remediation capabilities, leading him to his presentation this week in Australia at the conference Cleantech Science and Solutions: mainstream and at the edge.

“If you are looking for a quick fix from nanotechnology, forget it,” says Harper. “Nanotech is already making an impact in reducing energy, and therefore oil use, it is also being used to create stronger lighter materials that can be used for pipelines, and enabling better sensors for early warning of damage, but in terms of cleaning up the mess, the contribution is minor at best.”

Clearly not the hopeful words that many would have hoped for, and the pity is that it might have been different, according to Harper.

“As with all technologies, the applications take a while to develop,” he says. “If someone had come up with some funding 10 years ago for this specific application then we may have had better tools to deal with it.”

The situation is not without its irony, of course, since the reason we are not currently in a position to use nanomaterials for cleaning up this oil spill is in part environmental concerns.

“It is somewhat ironic that we spend so much time and effort worrying about the safety of a variety of nanomaterials that most people are unlikely to ever come into contact with, while we don't seem to be able to avoid environmental catastrophes on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico oil spillage occurring,” says Harper.

The way forward, according to Harper, will not be a quick fix but dedicated and broad-based work.

“As these events seem unavoidable, we should be looking at all forms of technology to enable a better disaster response,” urges Harper. “From engineering better nanomaterials for oil production, through to using biotech and synthetic biology to create organisms that can transform spilt oil into something more manageable, but more importantly reducing our dependence on something as messy, dangerous and polluting as oil.” 

While Harper did not note this, it would seem that for a small portion of the billions of dollars BP (or any oil company) is going to spend on containing and cleaning up this mess in the Gulf they could have now at their disposal a nanomaterial for cleaning up oil spills, and have gotten out of this on the cheap. But foresight is not the strong suit of businesses built around short-term profit motives as evidenced by them not even investing in the remote systems that would have turn the oil well off and possibly avoided the entire problem.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
Editor
Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
Contributor
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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