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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on July 30, 2014.

Fermilab physicist Arden Warner revolutionizes oil spill cleanup with magnetizable oil invention. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Fermilab physicist Arden Warner revolutionizes oil spill cleanup with magnetizable oil invention. Photo: Hanae Armitage

Four years ago, Fermilab accelerator physicist Arden Warner watched national news of the BP oil spill and found himself frustrated with the cleanup response.

“My wife asked ‘Can you separate oil from water?’ and I said ‘Maybe I could magnetize it!'” Warner recalled. “But that was just something I said. Later that night while I was falling asleep, I thought, you know what, that’s not a bad idea.”

Sleep forgone, Warner began experimenting in his garage. With shavings from his shovel, a splash of engine oil and a refrigerator magnet, Warner witnessed the preliminary success of a concept that could revolutionize the process of oil spill damage control.

Warner has received patent approval on the cleanup method.

The concept is simple: Take iron particles or magnetite dust and add them to oil. It turns out that these particles mix well with oil and form a loose colloidal suspension that floats in water. Mixed with the filings, the suspension is susceptible to magnetic forces. At a barely discernible 2 to 6 microns in size, the particles tend to clump together, and it only takes a sparse dusting for them to bond with the oil. When a magnetic field is applied to the oil and filings, they congeal into a viscous liquid known as a magnetorheological fluid. The fluid’s viscosity allows a magnetic field to pool both filings and oil to a single location, making them easy to remove. (View a 30-second video of the reaction.)

“It doesn’t take long — you add the filings, you pull them out. The entire process is even more efficient with hydrophobic filings. As soon as they hit the oil, they sink in,” said Warner, who works in the Accelerator Division. Hydrophobic filings are those that don’t like to interact with water — think of hydrophobic as water-fearing. “You could essentially have a device that disperses filings and a magnetic conveyor system behind it that picks it up. You don’t need a lot of material.”

Warner tested more than 100 oils, including sweet crude and heavy crude. As it turns out, the crude oils’ natural viscosity makes it fairly easy to magnetize and clear away. Currently, booms, floating devices that corral oil spills, are at best capable of containing the spill; oil removal is an entirely different process. But the iron filings can work in conjunction with an electromagnetic boom to allow tighter constriction and removal of the oil. Using solenoids, metal coils that carry an electrical current, the electromagnetic booms can steer the oil-filing mixture into collector tanks.

Unlike other oil cleanup methods, the magnetized oil technique is far more environmentally sound. There are no harmful chemicals introduced into the ocean — magnetite is a naturally occurring mineral. The filings are added and, briefly after, extracted. While there are some straggling iron particles, the vast majority is removed in one fell, magnetized swoop — the filings can even be dried and reused.

“This technique is more environmentally benign because it’s natural; we’re not adding soaps and chemicals to the ocean,” said Cherri Schmidt, head of Fermilab’s Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer. “Other ‘cleanup’ techniques disperse the oil and make the droplets smaller or make the oil sink to the bottom. This doesn’t do that.”

Warner’s ideas for potential applications also include wildlife cleanup and the use of chemical sensors. Small devices that “smell” high and low concentrations of oil could be fastened to a motorized electromagnetic boom to direct it to the most oil-contaminated areas.

“I get crazy ideas all the time, but every so often one sticks,” Warner said. “This is one that I think could stick for the benefit of the environment and Fermilab.”

Hanae Armitage


Fermilab’s iconic Wilson Hall can be seen in the background as visitors inspect savanna restoration efforts. Credit: Fermilab Natural Areas.

Editor’s note: One of the bonuses of Fermilab having much of its scientific infrastructure underground is that it allows for a wealth of open space on the 6,800-acre campus. Fermilab and volunteers from  neighboring communities use that space to create havens of restored native habitats to help wildlife flourish. So far, more than 1,100 acres have been restored. Savannas are just one example of these restoration efforts.

The highly endangered oak savanna was once one of the most common vegetation types in the Midwest. Grant money from the DuPage Community Foundation is helping to save this natural gem for hikers and animals by supporting restoration efforts at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.


In December, the Foundation awarded $7,500 for oak savanna restoration to Fermilab Natural Areas, a not-for-profit organization consisting of volunteers from the Chicagoland area.

The money will help protect a 35-acre savanna remnant in the center of Fermilab, which straddles the border of Kane and DuPage counties.

The restored savannah will create a tool for educating school and community groups about Illinois’ environmental past and the need for conservation. The savanna also should attract more wildlife to the area. Many infrequently seen species of insects and birds, such as the red-headed woodpecker, thrive in oak savannas.

The multi-phase restoration effort planned to start this winter will include removal of invasive species of trees and shrubs, prescribed burning, enrichment of the flora and monitoring. The project continues a long history of stewardship of environmental resources at Fermilab, which has led to the restoration of more than 1,100 acres of prairie, woodland, grassland and wetland.

“However, this restoration would not be possible without the injection of supplemental funding from organizations such as the DuPage Community Foundation to the Fermilab Natural Areas,” said Rod Walton, Fermilab ecologist.

Farming and development has taken its toll on the environment, leaving less than one-tenth of one percent of the native landscape of Illinois intact. Groups such as Fermilab Natural Areas are restoring the balance.

“The restoration of Illinois’s oak savannas allows children to see that landscape that greeted Illinois settlers,” Walton said. “It also secures a healthy future for the area by creating a diverse habitat.”

About FNA:

Fermilab Natural Areas (FNA) is a volunteer organization located in DuPage and Kane counties at Fermilab, dedicated to involving local community in restoring and conserving the natural environment at Fermilab. Established in 2006, FNA has a membership of more than 80 volunteers, whose activities are concentrated on conservation of the 10 square miles of largely open land at the facility owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. For further information regarding Fermilab Natural Areas, visit the website: http://www.fermilabnaturalareas.org/.


Earth Day and Doomsday

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Hi Folks-

In honor of Earth Day (and because I still retain my Badger Pride, in this case for Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson) I ask you a question: which is more likely, that we will all be swallowed up at the turn on of the LHC, or that we will adiabatically ruin our planet to satiate our increased demands for convenience and “higher quality of life”. The Energy problem/Global Warming/choose your own name for it is getting more and more attention these days, for good reason, and so it has been on my mind. At MIT, we have an Energy Initiative where the Institute as a whole has taken up the energy challenge, and people like Governor Patrick are giving talks to highlight its importance. In the Physics Department, we focus more on technological solutions, but I am not convinced this is the way to go. My brother, who has been working for Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corporation for the last 10 years or so (it has been at this business for 25 years!) tells me that in we currently have the technology to dramatically reduce our energy consumption (working with energy providers, building developers, and ordinary consumers) which is more expensive up front, but in the end saves money as well as energy. It is just a matter of getting people to change their habits-but that is really hard.
My main example of this is during my daily commute. My vehicle of choice is:
My vehicle of choice

which I ride for 10 minutes mostly along a path to a subway (it’s called the “T” in Boston) which takes me to MIT. I ride all year long (thanks to my town of Arlington, which has decided to plow the bike path) except in really bad weather when I take a bus to the T. This has many advantages:

  • With gas at $3.70/gallon and parking at $500/semester it’s better economically (My T pass costs $37/month, subsidized by MIT). By the way, in Switzerland gas was something like $5.20/gal last year, so it is still cheap in the US. Parenthetically, I am continually chagrined by our current leader’s commitment to reduce US dependence on foreign oil – not oil in general, that would be detrimental to the US oil industry, with which the current administration shares some pretty cozy past history, no? OK, I’ll step off the soap box.
  • I get at least 20 minutes of exercise a day, whether I like it or not. I don’t have to set aside extra time for exercise, it is part of my daily routine, and 20 minutes a day, done regularly, goes a long way. And it is outside, fresh air, not cooped up in some health club (which again costs more money)
  • It is faster! Well, if there were no traffic, it might be slightly faster by car, but when in Boston is there no traffic? Actually the fastest way to get from my house to MIT is bike all the way, but the bike back in traffic is no fun (too many cars, too much pollution, too many drivers venting their stress with their driving tactics and their horn) so I usually take the T instead.
  • There is a certain satisfaction I get out of cruising through traffic like a hot knife through butter while everyone is stuck in gridlock.

I’ve been using my bike for commuting since college, except for a few stints here and there when I had to deal with the kids at the same time, and I have to say the driver’s attitudes are getting better. Whereas there was little respect for bikers back in the day, now for instance I cross one road on the path every morning (Lake St) and I’d say 90% of the time cars go out of their way to yield the right of way to me- kudos to Arlington!

Often I have ample opportunity to observe the car traffic flowing around me, so I play a little game. I try to see how high I can count consecutive cars with single occupants, until I see one with more than one occupant, upon which I reset the count to zero. I think the highest I’ve ever counted was around thirty, and it isn’t hard to get to 10 at all. Forget the bike, what if half of those ten people in their car all alone got into someone else’s car – what effect would that have on traffic accidents, length of commute, pollution, parking space, noise, energy consumption…at the cost of being able to come and go as one pleases (but not really, because they schedule around traffic, no?). So I think the real challenge is not necessarily getting the technology but changing the mind set – the arguments are convincing, if you can get people to listen. I have a dream about getting school kids walking to school or waiting for the bus to play this game, and report their maximum count, then chart it as a function of location and time to see which part of the US is the most carpool friendly, but that’s not my day job. Anyway, awareness is what Earth Day is all about, so thanks Governor Nelson

PS I know this isn’t about the LHC so much, but we physicists tend to think about all sorts of stuff…and for readers near Boston, get on your bike duringBay State Bike Week