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'Virtual Wall' Could Help Prevent Oil Spills

By Rebekah Marcarelli r.marcarelli@hngn.com | Dec 04, 2013 04:14 PM EST

Future oil spills
Researchers looked at how oil behaves directly after a spill. (Photo : Reuters)

Oil could need nothing more than a "virtual wall" to keep it contained.

Oily liquids have a "thick skin" that allows them the better hold their shape referred to as the "surface tension", a University of Missouri-Columbia news release reported.

The team believes a virtual wall could keep oil from passing through. This has strong implications for the future of oil control, and can help researchers study the complex model.

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"Our work is based on micro/nanoelectromechanical systems, or M/NEMS, which can be thought of as miniaturized electrical or mechanical structures that allow researchers to conduct their work on the micro/nanoscopic level," Jae Kwon, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering at MU, said. "Oil-based materials or low-surface tension liquids, which can wet any surface and spread very easily, pose challenges to researchers who need to control those tiny oil droplets on microdevices."

Oil-based compounds are considered to have a low surface tension because the liquid tends to spread out on researcher's microscope slides. Oil can spread like wildfire on an array of surfaces, as has been shown in past events such spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

The team successfully blocked oil spread by using custom made oil-repellent surfaces. The team was able to make an invisible wall with "microscopic features already built into the device."  

"Our newly developed surface helped keep oil, which is normally unmanageable, in predetermined pathways making it controllable. We feel that oil-repellant surfaces can be widely utilized for many industrial applications, and virtual walls for low-surface tension liquids also have immense potential for many lab-on-a-chip devices which are crucial to current and future research techniques." Kwon said.  

The researchers believes the technology could help make oil transportation less risky in the future.

"The research, "Virtual walls based on oil-repellant surfaces for low-surface tension liquids," was conducted by Kwon and Riberet Almeida, a graduate student in the College of Engineering, and was published in the journal Langmuir, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the American Chemical Society."

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