MIT Robot Nanotechnology Show Promise For Oil Spills

A team of researchers at MIT has built a robot that can navigate itself along the surface of a body of water to clean up spilled oil.  The Seaswarm robot will improve upon the efficiency of current oil spill management techniques.  A fleet of 5,000 robots is estimated to be able to clean a large-scale spill like the one in the Gulf in about one month’s time.

While disastrous spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion happen infrequently enough to merit the production of a Seaswarm fleet, offshore drilling leads to constant small leaks.  Researcher Carlo Ratti set out to design an inexpensive approach to handling these small spills.  “Unlike traditional skimmers, Seaswarm is based on a system of small, autonomous units that behave like a swarm and ‘digest’ the oil locally while working around the clock without human intervention,” Ratti explained.

The Seaswarm prototype has been completed just in time for an international nanotechnology festival this weekend.  It measures 16 feet in length and 7 feet wide, with a conveyor belt of nanowire mesh that can absorb oil droplets.  The mesh repels water yet can absorb an impressive amount of oil, nearing 20 times its own weight.  Oil can be sequestered from the mesh and burned, making the conveyor belts reusable.  The prototype will be shown at the conference in Italy, which is aimed at showcasing how nanotechnology will impact our lives over the next 40 years.

The proposed swarm will use wireless transmitters and receivers, as well as GPS technology to traverse an oil spill as efficiently and thoroughly as possible.  When the edge of the spill is detected, robots will move back towards the center while communicating with others in the fleet to spread out evenly and not miss a single spot.  “We envisioned something that would move as a rolling carpet along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill,” said another researcher, Assaf Biderman.  The creative marine vehicle uses a lightweight conveyor belt to roll along the water surface, passing right over any waves.  The robots are powered by solar energy, with each unit housing two square meters of panels.

MIT points out that the fleet will be able to work continuously, improving upon the skimmers deployed in the Gulf of Mexico.  Despite using 800 skimming vessels, an estimated 3% of the surface oil was all that could be collected from the spill.