09/13/2012 04:10 pm ET

Cleaning Oil Spills With Magnets: MIT Researchers Devise Method For Separating Oil And Water (VIDEO)

Could we clean up oil spills with magnets? Researchers at MIT sure seem to think so.

According to the university's website, a "surprisingly simple but effective method for magnetically separating oil and water" has been devised. The technique could prove more efficient, less costly and benign to the environment.

"After the BP oil disaster about two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, I got the idea that if the oil were magnetic, we would be able to remove it with strong magnets and separate it from the water," Markus Zahn, a professor of electrical engineering, explains in an informational YouTube video posted this week by the university.

Watching the video, which features Zahn and Shahriar Khushrushahi, an MIT postdoc who is the lead author of a paper that details the research behind this new clean-up technique, one can't help but think about how much of a difference this new method could have made in the aftermath of the Gulf Oil spill.

The spill -- called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history -- has had far-reaching consequences that are still being felt today.

Ecosystems have been shaken, tens of thousands of animals have been put at risk, coral have been damaged and there's still plenty of oil that has yet to be cleaned up.

In an interview with The Huffington Post last year, Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer, said that the spill has "permanently" altered the nature of the area.

Significantly, she also said that many of the clean-up efforts in the aftermath of the spill "succeeded in magnifying, not diminishing the impacts."

In the MIT video, Khushrushahi explains the shortcomings of other clean-up methods currently in use.

"The current oil spill technology, like skimmers -- they're very good in calm waters but in choppy waters, their oil recovery efficiency is about 50 percent… Our technology is supposed to improve that efficiency," Khushrushahi said, adding that the oil that is removed magnetically can be recovered and eventually used.

Khushrushahi also said that unlike other clean up methods -- such as burning and allowing a water-oil mixture to slowly separate due to density differences -- this new technique would not exacerbate an already catastrophic environmental disaster and could be carried out quickly and continuously.

In the video, Khushrushahi also explains how this new method would work in real life, essentially saying that magnetic and water-repellent nanoparticles that are attracted to oil would be mixed into an oil and water mixture, before the (now-magnetized) oil is separated from the water using powerful magnets.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "oil spills happen every single year," with large spills occurring every few years:

Large spills happen every few years, from the 1969 offshore oil-platform catastrophe that dumped 3 million gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel to the April 6, 2010, spilling of 18,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico’s Delta National Wildlife Refuge -- from a ruptured BP pipeline -- to the cataclysmic April 20 spill.

Indeed, the U.S. Minerals Management Service has cavalierly assumed that nine large oil spills and 600 small oil spills will occur in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of its 2007–2012 program.

h/t: Mother Jones