Combatting Oil Spills: Developing Cost-Effective Production Methods for Magic Sand

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magic sand

Magic sand binds to petroleum particles in an oil spill, causing it to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Image Source: Flickr User Steve Jurvetson

Magic sand was once hailed as an effective, environmentally friendly way to combat damage from oil spills, produced by coating sand with a hydrophobic organosilicon compound. The magic sand would then be sprinkled on the spill, binding the oil into clumps and causing it to sink to the bottom of the lake or ocean.1  Unfortunately, this method was abandoned because production was believed to be too expensive,2  but in light of new technological advancements, oil companies might want to start reconsidering magic sand as a tool for cleaning up oil spills. movie Shaun the Sheep Movie trailer

Innovations such as electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) might be the key to improving scientific and economic research processes. They can do this by facilitating ease of communication and collaboration between scientists and researchers, helping oil companies develop new, financially feasible versions of magic sand.

Why Oil Companies Should Invest in Redeveloping Magic Sand

Magic sand is both more effective and more environmentally friendly than current cleanup methods. One such method is to apply a dispersant, which divides the oil in a spill into smaller droplets that are more available to bacteria, thereby speeding biodegradation.3  Unfortunately, it is not possible to use this method to clean up a spill near the coast, and some dispersants are toxic to the environment.4  Another method involves isolating an oil slick using floating “booms” and then skimming the oil off the top of the water using specialized equipment, but this method is ineffective in the presence of high winds or strong oceanic currents.5

Oil spills that are not effectively dealt with can be extremely costly for oil companies. In 2015, British Petroleum (BP) agreed to pay out $20.8 billion in order to settle claims against the company in the case of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Approximately $8.8 billion was to pay for natural resource damages, and $5.5 billion was earmarked for Clean Water Act penalties.6  Similarly, after the Guanabara Bay Oil Spill, the Brazilian government fined Petrobras $28 million—the maximum penalty under the Environmental Crimes Act.7  In light of these and other major oil spills, it is important for oil companies to consider other, more environmentally friendly options to help them avoid costly lawsuits.

Exploring Less Expensive Production Methods

There are a few ways that the production of magic sand could potentially be made more cost-effective. Magic sand is traditionally prepared by exposing ordinary beach sand to the vapors of trimethylsilanol, an organosilicon compound.8   Oil companies could begin considering less expensive options by identifying alternative organosilicon compounds that could then be used to coat the sand, or explore more cost-effective methods for coating.

There is also the possibility of combining magic sand with natural granular materials, such as limestone or quartz sand. Like magic sand, these sands can bind to oil particles floating in water and cause them to sink.9  It may be possible to combine these natural sands with magic sand so that less magic sand needs to be manufactured.

Using New Technology to Streamline the Development of Magic Sand

Electronic lab notebook (ELN) technology can help researchers find financially feasible versions of magic sand by streamlining the research process. ELNs make it easier for scientists to access previous material so they can avoid experiment duplication and make the most of each new experiment. ELNs also facilitate real-time collaboration, both within the lab and across departments. For example, researchers who are testing different combinations of magic sand and natural granular materials can easily share their results with scientists who are studying the effects of ocean currents on magic sand. Based on each other’s findings, each group can design new tests to help address the challenges that the other is facing. Through facilitating ease of collaboration, ELNs can help improve the quality of the final product and get it ready for widespread use more quickly.

Another huge benefit is the ability to integrate scientific research results with economic data. Scientists in the lab can share their findings with financial analysts who can calculate the cost of using a new material or the cost of new production methods. Improving communication will ensure that researchers do not waste time testing and developing a version of magic sand that is too expensive from the outset.

Finally, ELNs can also help oil companies integrate economic and ecological data with results from magic sand experiments in order to facilitate a high-level cost-benefit analysis of investing in magic sand technology. And when possible lawsuits and the potential to lose future business are factored in, companies may find that magic sand is a worthwhile investment after all.

BIOVIA Notebook is an electronic lab notebook that can help oil companies with the research and development of cost-efficient and environmentally friendly oil spill cleanup methods. By facilitating data integration and streamlining the research process, ELNs can help companies cut down on upfront costs and minimize long-term financial risks. Contact us today to learn how our offerings can help your company develop innovative solutions like magic sand.

  1. “Oil Spill Clean Up Simulation,” 2016, http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/oil-spill-clean-simulation
  2. “Magic Sand,” 2015, http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/lab/experiments/magic-hydrophobic-sand/
  3. “Oil dispersants do facilitate biodegradation of spilled oil,” March 15, 2016, http://www.pnas.org/content/113/11/E1421.extract
  4. “Dispersants,” 2016, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/dispersants.html
  5. “How do you clean up an oil spill?” 2004, http://www.ceoe.udel.edu/oilspill/cleanup.html
  6.  “BP settles final oil spill claims for $20 billion,” October 6, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/06/news/companies/deepwater-horizon-bp-settlement/
  7. “$100m Penalty for Brazil Oil Spill,” August 2, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/862560.stm
  8. “How To Make Homemade Magic Sand,” May 7, 2016, http://chemistry.about.com/od/homeexperiments/fl/How-To-Make-Homemade-Magic-Sand.htm
  9. “‘Magic Sand’ Cleans Up Floating Oil,” March 15, 2015, http://oceanbites.org/magic-sand-cleans-up-floating-oil/