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Apr 27, 2017 11:34 AM EDT

Oil spills are messy and difficult to clean but most of all, they are very harmful to the ecosystem. This problem might have a solution soon because MIT scientists declared that they have developed a new method of cleaning oil spills using light.

The method has been tested by MIT scientists where they were able to separate water and oil from each other. The new technology is made up of titanium oxide which the scientists bound to a polymer film on a layer of glass. Then they dipped the combination in an organic dye which made the material responsive to ultraviolet light. After that, they placed the material under the sun which transformed into a water-oil separator. In all the tests the scientists conducted, salt water spread out on the surface as it separates from oil.

Scientists say that the technology was inspired by the phenomenon called photoresponsiveness which can be seen in suntan oil. When suntan oil is exposed to visible light or in the dark, this oil repels water. However, when suntan oil is exposed to ultraviolet light, it attracts water and becomes wettable.

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Although there are other existing methods that separate water and oil, scientists say this new method is unique because they consume less energy and is effective even in saline water. In fact, tests have shown how salt water spreads out of the surface as it separates from oil.

Some of the practical uses of the technology are in cleaning oil spills and in separating drilled oil from briny water much easier.

According to the scientists, engineers could design a microfluidic lab-on-a-chip which does not need any built-in structure. What will happen instead is the light patterns could create the boundaries to allow the droplets to move around so scientists can analyze them.

The research was published in Nature Communications.

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