A lot of oil spill clean-up technology is focused on heavily mechanical solutions--gadgets and machines pumping the muck out of water. But some interesting solutions to the quandary come from other fields of science, and one team is looking to chemistry for a better way. They're using an emulsifier, a custom molecule that allows liquids, such as oil and water, to mix. And this particular emulsifier responds to magnets.
The molecules that researchers are using are called magnetic surfactants (surface-active agents), and they're able to coat the oil that's in a mixture of oil and water. The hydrophilic poles at the end of the surfactants stick out into the water and grab on. After that, the combination can be manipulated by magnets. Ideally, this means you could send a batch into an oil spill, let the oil, water, and emulsifier mix, then remove it all with a magnetic field.
Researchers are hoping the technology could have applications in other fields, too. The same idea could be applied to medicine when doctors want to apply a treatment to a specific site in the body.