The event is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in history, and one of the biggest challenges scientists faced at the time was cleaning up the mess.
Water and oil create an emulsion—a dispersion of tiny droplets of one liquid in another in which it’s not soluble—which is really hard to break apart. Scientists have tried different methods to separate emulsions, such as dispersants—explained at the University of Delaware website as a solution that reduces surface tension and stops water and oil from mixing—but they haven’t been that successful.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have announced the invention of a new membrane that can separate the two fluids. The membrane has tiny pores that sieve water from oil and a special coating that attracts water but repels oil, leaving pure oil and water behind.
According to MIT News, the membrane can be manufactured at an industrial scale and process large quantities of emulsion back into pure oil and water.
The results of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Watch how the membrane works: