British researchers have found a way to imbue soap with magnetic properties, which could have huge implications in the way we fight ecosystem-damaging oil spills. Here's why making the slippery stuff magnetic could be a game changer:
Soap helps clean up environmental disasters?
It does. Dispersants and "surfactants," the technical name for soap, are added to water along with other chemicals to help break up hazardous oil, such as during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But such procedures are not without their costs. These chemicals are themselves hazardous to the environment (though not to the degree of the oil they break up), and are painstakingly difficult to collect. They can do a lot of damage to sea life before they break down or get diluted.
What's the advantage of making soap magnetic?
It's simple: A detergent that you can move with magnets would be much easier to gather up and remove from the water. "The goal is to create a soap... that can then be picked up out of the environment," says Stephanie Pappas at Live Science, "not just rinsed away."
How did they do it?
Scientists from the University of Bristol added iron-rich salts to create "metallic centers within the soap particles," says Ted Thornhill at Britain's Daily Mail. After the solution was added to water in a test tube, a magnet was used to overpower both gravity and the surface tension of the water, levitating the iron-rich "scrubbing bubbles" so they could be removed.
Can this be applied to other things?
Yep. "Proving that magnetic soaps can be developed" was just the first step on the road to all kinds of new products, says lead researcher Julian Eastoe. "The magnetic soap probably won't be appearing on supermarket shelves anytime soon," says Rebecca Boyle at Popular Science, "but it's an interesting breakthrough" that could lead to everything from new water treatment methods to industrial cleaning products.