Over 80 skimmers were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer of 2010 to help clean up the Deepwater Horizon leak;
however, it is estimated that these skimmers collected only three percent of the surface oil. Researchers at MIT have devised a system, called Seaswarm, consisting of a fleet of vehicles that may make cleaning up future oil spills both less expensive and more efficient than current skimming methods. A robotic prototype created by the researchers could autonomously navigate the ocean surface using cutting edge nanotechnology to collect surface oil and process it on site.
The Seaswarm robot uses a conveyor belt covered with a thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil. The fabric, developed by MIT Visiting Associate Professor Francesco Stellacci, can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. By heating up the material, the oil can be removed and burnt locally and the nanofabric can be reused.
“We envisioned something that would move as a ‘rolling carpet’ along the water and seamlessly absorb a surface spill,” said Assaf Biderman, Lab Associate Director of MIT’s Senseable City. “This led to the design of a novel marine vehicle: a simple and lightweight conveyor belt that rolls on the surface of the ocean, adjusting to the waves.”
The Seaswarm robot, which is 16 feet long and seven feet wide (4.9 x 2m), uses two square meters (21.5 square feet) of solar panels for self-propulsion. Unlike traditional skimmers that are attached to large vessels and need to constantly return to the shore for maintenance, the Seaswarm robot running on just 100 watts, the equivalent of one household light bulb, could potentially clean continuously for weeks.
“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,” explained Senseable City Lab Director Carlo Ratti.