When the Deepwater Horizon oil well collapsed and spilled 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the dispersants used to clean up the oil created their own potential environmental problems. According to a report last year in Nature, almost 3 million liters of dispersants — including industrial soaps known as surfactants — were injected into the Deepwater Horizon oil well. Those chemicals traveled for miles beyond the spill and had only begun to break down six months later.


Now researchers from the University of Bristol in the U.K. devised a new approach to surfactants that could help clean up future oil spills more safely.


The scientists have developed what is being called the world's first magnetic soap. The soap is composed of iron-rich salts dissolved in water, chlorine and bromide ions. This forms a magnetic core within the soap particles, which can be applied to water and then controlled through the application of magnetic fields.


Their research was published Jan. 20 in the journal Angewandte Chemie.


While still theoretical, the scientists say this suggests a future detergent based on this discovery could be applied to oil spills and other sensitive environments and then lifted back out of the environments with the use of magnets.


One of the paper's lead authors, professor Julian Eastoe, who led the research, called this "a particularly interesting discovery. By proving that magnetic soaps can be developed, future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications from water treatment to industrial cleaning products," he said in a prepared release.


While others praised the idea's potential, some also pointed out that preventing oil spills is also necessary. "Prevention is still better than cure," Euan Dunn, head of marine policy for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told the Daily Mail. "Oil spills have many different, negative impacts on the marine environment and its wildlife, particularly seabirds, some of which cannot be mitigated. The effects of an oil spill can and do persist in the marine environment for many decades, even after a thorough clean-up operation."


So far, the new technique has been tested only in small amounts. The soap was placed beneath a less dense organic solution within a test tube. When a magnetic force was introduced, the soap levitated to the surface to reach the magnets. Scientists at the University of Bristol and the Institut Laue-Langevin will continue their research, combining it with their previous research into developing soaps that can be controlled by light, carbon dioxide, changes in pH, temperature or pressure.


Also on MNN:

Magnetic soap: New tool for oil spill cleanup?
Researchers have developed a soap made of iron rich salts which could one day safely clean tainted water.