Using magnetic zeolites, a group of Chilean researchers has developed a system that will help to clean up coasts or other areas affected by disasters that involve oily wastes like petroleum, a mechanism that has now become more relevant than ever – after the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform operated by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico – to prevent disasters from human activities.
Specifically, the new product that the Chilean scientists have created will help to collect part of the oil that is lost in a spill. However, it will not do so in large amounts, but instead will be concentrated on removing the remains of crude oil that tend to be left behind in the water after pumps have been used, which are known to be very hard to extract.
The invention, principally developed by researchers at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (Usach), emerged from a doctoral thesis in chemistry by Marlen Gutierrez. According to the scientist, the study “took advantage of all of the properties that zeolites possess, increasing their potential for applications by incorporating magnetic properties.”
But what are zeolites? Essentially they are a series of minerals comprised of hydrated aluminum silicates of alkali and alkaline earth metals. The study proved that this group of minerals attach themselves to oil with magnets and leave the water free of residues, in addition to being reusable.
For the same reason the product has two lines of application: environmental, as it removes contaminants like oil, and for use as a container for medications, taking advantage of the magnetic properties to concentrate and allow the release of a medication in a specific place.
In addition, the innovative product has another advantage, as the zeolites are natural elements that are found in rocks that can be obtained from certain Chilean mines, meaning that they are very low in cost.
The research, which is still under way, has received the support of the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Research Center, a multidisciplinary scientific organization comprised of scientists from different Chilean universities. In addition, it has received financing from the Basal Program of the Chilean National Scientific and Technological Research Commission (Conicyt).