by David H. Freedman, Source: DiscoverMagazine
The worst industrial spills call for something stronger than the old-fashioned bar sitting in your soap dish.
New-age soaps can respond to light, acidity, temperature, pressure, or magnetism—so they clean up just the right nasty atoms.
Between freak Arctic melting, Japanese nuclear melting, and antibiotic resistance popping up everywhere, I can’t help but see the world as tiptoeing into pre-apocalypse. If there is some sort of crapstorm coming and I’m lucky enough to survive it, there’s one thing I know for sure: I’m going to need a really good hand-cleaner for the aftermath. When I come in from a hard day of zombie hunting, it won’t be just dirt that I’ll need to get out from under my fingernails.
Actually, I could use that doomsday soap now—or rather, we all could. That’s because most of the human race has no intention of patiently waiting for an unspecified apocalypse and has already gotten a head start on mass despoiling. So far the tides of toxic waste and exploded-oil-rig crude haven’t made it as far as my sleepy burb. But right now somebody somewhere is facing a mess that Softsoap won’t make a dent in.
Hold that last thought—soap is, in fact, exactly what some of the world’s smartest cleanup experts are now touting for the next big spill. You might suppose that scrubbing bubbles would be a poor choice of weapon against giant blobs of crude, especially compared with giant oil-corralling booms and high-tech oil-skimming robots. But soap has some important advantages: It really cleans things up (that’s what it is made to do, after all), and at the end, all that oily soap can be neatly and completely gathered up with a magnet.
You didn’t know soap was magnetic? You’re obviously using one of those old-fashioned iron-free soaps. The new stuff can be found in the laboratory of research chemist Julian Eastoe at the University of Bristol in the U.K. Sure, any numbskull can pour a bag of iron filings into a jug of Tide (trust me, my wife is still screaming). The trick is to get the iron to chemically bond to the soap—or as chemists like to say, the “surfactant”—and in sufficient quantity to enable the ironic solution to be pulled by a magnet.
A Magnetic Mop for Oil
Eastoe played around with a number of surfactants and iron compounds before hitting on solutions of iron salts, related to the surfactants in mouthwash and fabric softeners but with some magnet-friendly metal thrown in. In theory, this soapy slop could be heaved by the tankful onto oily shorelines to mix with the spilled crude, and then sucked up by magnet-equipped vehicles or volunteers, leaving behind none of the toxic solvents or messy detergents commonly employed in cleaning oil. “It would be especially useful for cleaning contaminated seabirds,” notes Eastoe, who has obviously never had to wield a magnet against an infuriated, oil-and-soap-covered seagull.
Pennsylvania State University materials science professor T. C. Chung has come up with a different take on an oil-spill cleaner. Chung was working for Exxon in 1989 when that company’s notorious Valdez tanker spilled 11 million barrels of crude into Alaskan waters. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster blackened much of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Professor Chung was determined to become Professor Clean. “I saw that in all that time, we still hadn’t come up with a better way to clean up oil than a paper towel,” he says. “I knew there had to be a solution.” That solution, he decided, was Petrogel.
Chung worked with a cheap, plasticlike compound called a polyolefin, a long-chain molecule. Though the stuff isn’t technically a surfactant, he chemically tacked on branches to the molecular chain and got it to form a molecular web that surrounds particles of oil. The result: One pound of Petrogel will combine with more than 40 pounds of oil, preventing it from dispersing into the ocean or from sticking to sand or dolphins. “You could spray it on a spill as powder, trap all the oil as gel, and then recover it with skimmers,” he says. And since a polyolefin is made up of hydrocarbons, like oil, the easy-to-handle gel could be refined as if it were plain old oil. It wouldn’t have to be dumped somewhere, and some of the costs of recovery could be, well, recovered.
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