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I have a team of kids (8th graders) that are doing the First Lego League competition this year. As part of that they have to come up with a possible solution to a problem that relates to the human water cycle. They need to contact experts and share their thoughts and get feedback of their solution. We would greatly appreciate any feedback. I've listed what the problem is they are trying to solve and their suggested solution below, and then some questions.

Problem: Oil spills in water (caused by various things - accidents, hurricanes, etc)

Their proposed solution: Create an environmentally safe chemical that can be put in the oil, that if there is a leak, as soon as the oil comes in contact with water, the chemical causes the oil to solidify thus sealing the leak or at least slowing it down. The solidified oil would be buoyant so that it could be easily skimmed out of the water. The solidified oil could also be reprocessed back into usable oil.

Questions the kids have: Does such a chemical currently exist that can do this?
If so, why is it not being used - any downside to using it? If not, is it possible to invent such a chemical? Now or in the future? What kind of components could be used to do create such a chemical?

We really appreciate any response you can give.
Thank you so much!

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    $\begingroup$ While idea seems clever, I'm afraid it can't be done in any simple way and therefore nothing like this exists and probably won't be any-time soon. $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Sep 27 '17 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your response! They understand that it most likely can't be done easily and any-time soon. what would have to exist to allow for something like this? are there any chemicals that might be considered as part of this solution? besides money and time, what would equipment might be used? this is for a project so any detail given is appreciated. $\endgroup$ – TJ Ray Oct 1 '17 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, if there was significant fraction of long chain polyunsaturated methylesters and some "miraculous" O2 activated polymerisation catalyst, then maybe fuel could turn into "jelly" on contact with air... There's inherent vice in this idea, though. Fuel has to contact with air at least when used, so after transport this would have to be undone. Also no contact with air would make transport problematic. $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Oct 1 '17 at 22:56
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A chemical that can be added to crude oil so that the oil solidifies upon contact with water to either seal leaks or to make the oil recoverable sounds like a very good idea. Unfortunately, such a chemical is exceedingly unlikely to exist.

When processing crude oil, you typically want the oil itself and not any additives. That means, the chemical in question would have to be added in concentrations as low as possible. Therefore, it’s reaction with water must be very strong. But this in turn means that the traces of water present everywhere (yes, even inside your sample of crude oil) would almost be enough to cause the reaction. Therefore, outside of water-free atmospheres (used in laboratories under inert gas to perform water and air-sensitive reactions) this chemical would hardly be usable.

A second problem is getting the chemical reasonably dissolved. Crude oil is a very viscous mixture unless heated. To use the chemical effectively, it would need to be added almost immediately and distributed well in the sample of crude oil — which would mean immediately heating the crude oil to such temperatures that efficient mixing is possible (likely under pressure to not lose the more valuable but also more volatile petrol components) right after getting it out of the ground. Especially on oil rigs, I see major difficulties with this process; and it is basically on oil rigs that you would want this chemical the most.

Finally, there is the ‘how would it work’ problem. I have extreme difficulty imagining a reaction with water that would lead to solidification. The only idea I can come up with is a compound that would be liquid at standard conditions but adds water to become a solid which crystallises out of the crude oil phase. However, this solid would likely not do you the favour of crystallising where you need it and you would need so much of it that my first argument becomes invalidated. Therefore, I conclude that such a compound cannot exist.

If such a compound exists, I’m sure we would have heard of it or it would be in use (or have been in use if there are significant and severe environmental issues with it that are worse than the issues with crude oil itself.

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The skimming equipment was designed and used many years ago; except it did not involve any chemical additions. Oil floats , A sponge-like continuous belt runs through the water preferentially absorbing oil phase . It then goes through rollers that squeeze out mostly oil by adjusting pressure. Then the belt passes second rollers that squeeze out water. And the belt passes into the oil slick again. I don't know if it has been a commercial success. I will bet a lot of money the EPA would outlaw the chemical you want as they have for those chemicals used to break-up oil .

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  • $\begingroup$ While in general a good answer, I unfortunately have to downvote for the final sentence. $\endgroup$ – Jan Nov 15 '17 at 14:15

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