The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill was the third-largest in the history of the world. About 210 million gallons of oil spewed into the Atlantic Ocean over 87 days, permanently transforming the shoreline of the southeastern United States, destroying subsistence fishing as a viable regional occupation, and driving countless species closer to extinction.
It wasn’t the first catastrophic oil spill in the world’s history, or even in BP’s history, but it raised an important question: is there any way to mitigate the damage these things cause? Because the way things are right now, you can’t un-spill oil; the industry relies on toxic oil dispersants, which are of limited effectiveness and may cause more environmental problems than they solve.
Arden Warner, a physicist at Fermilab, has wrestled with this question more boldly—and more effectively—than most of us:
“My wife asked me, what would I try to do?” says Warner. “In my naïve way of thinking about things, I thought, ‘there are four forces we know about, and only one I really know about: electromagnetic force.’” But how could he magnetize oil? …
That night Warner went to his garage. He shaved some iron off a shovel and mixed those filings into a bit of engine oil. Then he applied a small magnet to the solution and tried to move it – and it worked. This was proof enough of concept to fuel “countless hours” of experimentation.
Warden’s hard work paid off, and has attracted the interest of investors. Although damage from existing oil spills is probably irreversible in the short term, future work based on Warden’s research may allow environmental engineers to clean up immediately after a future oil spill by magnetizing the oil and drawing it in from the water. The question, as always, is whether the implantation of the theory can live up to its promise.