The May 2024 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Nano-Enabled Autonomous Robot Offered for Cleaning Oil Spills

A technological solution offered for oil spills but will it get developed?

1 min read

When the Gulf oil spill hit the news last Spring, I wondered how long it would take for people to turn to nanotechnology for a solution, and whether it could offer one at all.

It seems attempts to use a nanoparticle-based dispersant on the problem caused more controversy than offered a solution.

I was left with the idea that I shared in my comments to the post: “If you want technology to do something in particular, you had better start spending some time and money in getting it to work. If not, you will be left in the situation we are in now where nanotechnology's impact could be somewhere between minimal to none at all.”

While I am not aware of the broader technological work that is now underway to combat oil spills, I have seen an interesting technology out of MIT that uses an autonomous robot equipped with a “thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil.”

According to Francesco Stellacci, a Visiting Professor at MIT, the nano-enabled fabric can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. The material also can be heated up to eliminate the oil from it and then reused.

The system would work by employing a swarm of these oil-capturing robots (thus the name, “Seaswarm”) for cleaning up oil spills. The MIT researchers estimate that 5,000 of these robots working autonomously around the clock for a month could clean up an oil spill the size of the one in the Gulf.

So, the technology is there in prototype. The question now becomes whether an oil company will spend the money to develop it into a real solution. We’ll see. The video below offers more detail on the technology.


The Conversation (0)