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Hordes Of Microscopic Submarines Could Suck Up Oil After Spills

The cone-shaped vessels, one-tenth the size of a human hair, each collect a droplet of oil. With enough of them, oil spills could be cleaned up fast.

Oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico can cause intense damage and take years to clean up. Some experts estimate that it will take four decades before researchers know the full extent of the damage, including the 1.1 million barrels of oil that formed surface slicks and tar balls, sank to the bottom, or washed up on beaches.

This year, scientists are reporting development and successful testing of the first self-propelled "microsubmarines" designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities. The report, which appeared in the journal ACS Nano, concluded that these tiny machines could play an important role in cleaning up oil. The study was just a proof of concept, but the researchers hope the technology could make a difference in the future.

This is how it could work: the submarines, at one-tenth the size of a human hair, propel themselves to a location or are dropped near a spill. They move very quickly and require very little fuel. Tests showed that the cone-shaped microsubmarines can collect droplets of olive oil and motor oil in water and transport them through the water. The microsubs have a special surface coating, which makes them superhydrophobic—extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent. "These results demonstrate the potential of the superhydrophobic-modified microsubmarines for facile, rapid, and highly efficient collection of oils in oil-contaminated water samples," say the researchers.

Microengines have been developed in the past . Experts say that they could transport medications through the bloodstream directly to the site of an illness. In addition, a December 2012 study showed how nanoswimmers could test for water quality They say that the micromachines, which swim like fish, could let future researchers know how toxic a body of water is in an environmentally-friendly way. All of these technologies are emerging—and for the tiny ‘bots, the possibilities to help seem endless.