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Using Magnetic Nanoparticles to Clean Water

The oil industry has a complicated relationship with water. Huge oil spills have caused major environmental damage, and fracking has been shown to contaminate drinking water supplies. Part of the problem is the technology, which can only remove 95 percent of oil from water. The other five percent remains as tiny droplets that are time-consuming and costly to extract. Recently, a team from the University of Texas at Austin took a step towards solving that issue.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, researchers developed a technique that uses magnetic nanoparticles to remove oil from water. Lead author Saebom Ko, a Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering research associate, explained, “This new technique is really aimed at removing that little bit of oil in that water that needs to be removed before you can consider it treated.”

This technique, known as high gradient magnetic separation, has been previously used in the food and mining industries, but this one of the first applications in the oil industry. First, they designed a surface coating for the nanoparticles. The coating was made up of positively charged polymers, which attracted the negatively charged oil particles through the electrostatic force. After the nanoparticles have attracted the oil droplets, the mixture is removed from the water using a magnet.

The success of the technique has led researchers to look beyond than the oil industry. They hope that nanoparticles can be used to clean oil spills and even filter contaminants like lead from drinking water. Geosystems Engineering professor Hugh Daigle is optimistic about the flexibility of this technology. “The applications can extend far beyond the oil field because, with an appropriate surface coating design, you can take your magnetic core and coat it with whatever chemical you choose on the outside to stick to the target and pull it out with a magnet,” he said.

The team plans to test using nanoparticles to treat drinking water this summer. They’ll also work to industrialize the process to handle large volumes of water and oil. Finally, they plan to refine techniques to recycle and reuse dirty nanoparticles. This study was just the first step in crafting a technology with the potential to revolutionize the way water is treated around the globe.


Scientists to Combat Oil Spills with Magnetic Nanoparticles

Scientists from the Austin-based University of Texas recently unveiled a new weapon in the fight against oil spills. The cutting-edge technology, which saw coverage in a number of tech news resources, is also purported to have potential use in purifying lead from contaminated drinking water which, if true, would go a long way towards solving potable water shortages in developing nations across the globe.


Oil spills have long posed a serious danger to the environment. They have the potential to devastate the habitats of aquatic species. The spills also impact air quality, as chemical compounds within the oil oxidize and enter the atmosphere. Even current cleanup procedures pose risks; apparently, the ships used to facilitate the clean-up release further damaging particles into the environment. Furthermore, current methods, namely skimming and centrifuging, are only able to remove about 95 percent of oil from contaminated water. However, the new tech hopes to bring this number closer to 100.


The experimental process works by coating nanoparticles with a positively charged polymer. Negatively-charged oil particles are naturally drawn toward the synthetic, lab-grown nanoparticles, and the pairs they form are subsequently removed from the water using a powerful magnet. The process is much faster than current methods, with particle attraction occurring within minutes of their introduction into the water.


While further testing is necessary before employing the method on a larger scale, so far the results have been promising. The nanoparticles have been proven to safely remove salt and polymer contaminants from water, and tests with oil-contaminated samples show a removal rate of about 99 percent. This, according to a study in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, puts the remaining oil well below the detectable limit.


Scientists are still experimenting with the best way to implement the fledgling technology. So far, they’ve devised a wand coated in the nanoparticles, and are working on a system that uses a tube and filter. They are also working on making the particles reusable, which would qualify them as a more environmentally friendly solution than skimming or centrifuging. While large-scale implementation may be a long way off, controlled studies of the nanoparticles are promising, and will only improve as scientists continue to experiment.