Oil because I love learning about organic chemistry and








Oil Spill Clean-Up Investigation

Lily Schneider

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IB Environmental Systems and Studies SL



Table of Contents





Background Research














Data Presentation








Problem: What is the most economical and environmentally friendly way to clean up large scale oil spills?

Hypothesis: The sorbent that will be the most useful in cleaning up the oil will be polypropylene pads. These will be the most efficient while still being economically and environmentally friendly. This is because they do not produce major greenhouse gasses in their production and are very durable.

Background: I am interested in this subject because I love learning about organic chemistry and how it connects to environmental sciences. The chemical compounds that makeup oils and their effect on the environment is a subject that I would like to pursue in college as I am a large advocate for sustainability in regard to natural energy. This topic must be further investigated because oil spills have huge detrimental effects on ocean wildlife and therefore negative effect humans. Oil deters aquatic animals and birds from repelling water, thus allowing them to get hypothermia and become ill or perish. This contributes to biomagnification processes and harms all parts of the ocean ecosystem. Many oil spills in the past have made major news around the world because of their lasting, negative impact. Environmental organization and petroleum companies are constantly looking for ways to quickly and efficiently clean up these spills. Some methods of oil spill clean-up include: containment and skimming using floats, oil dispersants, and biological agents. The goal of these methods is to stop the oil from infiltrating the ocean. Containment and skimming aims to gather the oil in one area and scoop it out. Oil dispersants combine oil and water chemically which turns into bubbles of tar. This method is still harmful to the environment, but the tar is easier to clean up than the oil. The last method, biological agents, relies on nitrogen or phosphorous based fertilizers to break down the oil into fatty acids and carbon dioxide to remove the threat. Although these methods are all effective, the oil can never be completely removed from the environment once it enters.


Independent Variable: The independent variable being tested is the method of clean-up. In this case, these are polypropylene pads, corn cobs, and coconut husks.

Dependent Variable: The dependent variable is the amount of oil that remains in the simulated “ocean” after each clean-up method is tested.

Control Variable: The control variables are the amount of water poured into the measuring cup, the amount of oil poured into the measuring cup, the temperature of the environment, and the amount of time the sorbent has to absorb the oil.


·       Newspaper

·       Large plastic garbage bag

·       Liquid measuring cup, 4-cup size;

·       3 cups each of coconut husks, corn cobs, and polypropylene pads

·       Scissors

·       Gloves and eye protection

·       Hammer

·       Large towel or burlap bag

·       Paper or glass bowls, 12-oz size (need three bowls for each sorbent you are testing)

·       Vegetable oil (1 gallon)

·       Pitcher of water

·       Dry measuring cup, 1-cup size

·       Reusable mesh coffee filter

·       Stopwatch

·       Liquid soap

·       Sharp knife


1.     Cut sorbents into small pieces so that they will fit into a measuring cup.

a.     Use large, sharp knife to cut the coconut and split the husk from the edible, white inside.

b.    Use scissors to cut the polypropylene pads into smaller pieces that are about the size of your thumb.

2.     Separate the sorbents into two separate bowls.

3.     Pour 1.5 cups of water into a measuring cup.

4.     Pour 0.5 cups of vegetable oil on top of the water.

5.     Put 0.5 cups of the first chose sorbent into the coffee filter and place it into the measuring cup.

6.     Leave the filter in the measuring cup for 30 seconds.

7.     Remove the filter from the measuring cup and let it drip over the cup for 30 seconds.

8.     Dispose of the used sorbent in the trash.

9.     Find the measurement on the measuring cup where the oil and water stop and record this value in a data table.

10.   Find the measurement on the measuring cup where the water stops and record this value in the data table.

11.   Subtract the measurement of water level from the measurement of total oil and water to calculate only the amount of oil left in the measuring cup.

12.   Calculate the ratio of water to oil left in the measuring cups by dividing the amount of water in the cup by the amount of oil in the cup.

13.  Clean out the filter using liquid soap and water.

14.  Wash out the measuring cup to get rid of the remnants of oil and water.

15.  Repeat steps 3-14 for the next sorbent.

16.  Repeat steps 3-15 two more times for a total of three trials.

Safety: This lab does not require much safety as all of the materials used can be found in an average household. However, it is important to be cautious when breaking the coconut to remove the husk. This process should be conducted outside to reduce mess and if the researcher is uncomfortable handling sharp materials to cut the coconut, this part should be carried out by someone skilled in this area.

Data Presentation:

            This data shows that the coconut husks were better at removing oil while keeping the water intact. This remained constant in every trial and is evident in the average of all three trials. In the first trial, 0.32 cups of oil remained in the measuring cup with polypropylene pads while only 0.20 cups of oil remained with the coconut husk. The same pattern can be followed in the second trial in which 0.25 cups of oil remained with the pads and only 0.21 cups stayed with the husks. In the final trial, 0.33 cups of oil were present in the measuring cup after the polypropylene pads were removed and 0.19 cups of oil were left after the coconut husks. On average, 0.30 cups of oil remained after the polypropylene pads while 0.20 remained after the coconut husks. This is significant because this means that the coconut husks managed to remove over half the amount of the oil that was originally poured into the measuring cup as the experiment started with 0.5 cups.

            Another significant result of this data can be found in the amount of water left in the measuring cup after the removal of the sorbent. This value is important because it shows how much of the original environment remained unharmed in the oil removal process. The sorbent that allowed the most water to stay in the measuring cup was always the coconut husk which consistently left behind 1.67 cups of water whereas the polypropylene pads left an average of 1.41 cups of water behind. This led to the coconuts having a higher average proportion of water to oil of 8.35 in comparison to the 4.70 of the pads.

Evaluation/ Discussion:

Overall, this experimentation proved that coconut husks are more suitable in cleaning up oil spills than polypropylene pads. Although this is only one small-scale experiment, this data can translate to real-life investigations on oil spills. This data proves that even though polypropylene pads are made to clean up spills while coconut husks have a different main purpose, the organic material still works more efficiently to clean up oil. 

Oil spills already have horrible effects on the wildlife living in the area of the spill, so it is unsafe to add more abiotic materials to the area during a clean-up effort. One must also consider the time benefits of using inorganic materials. The quicker the oil is removed, the less damage it will have on wildlife, but it can only be removed very quickly using inorganic methods. Overall, I would suggest combing organic and inorganic methods in order to create the most efficient oil extraction possible.

This lab is a valid way of identifying which sorbent of those tested is better for absorbing oil, however mistakes were made in the conduction of this lab which would make it inappropriate to establish as literature data. For example, when observing the amount of water left in the measuring cup after the sorbent was removed, it is possible that I mistook some of the oil for water as I ended up reporting that there was more water in the measuring cup after the experiment than there was before it started. This phenomenon is impossible because no water was added during the experiment, but it is possible that some of the oil and water mixed together because I poured the oil too quickly and this made it appear as though some of the oil was actually water.

            Another experiment that I could conduct to further explore this topic would be to test salt water and oil with types of sorbents that are truly used in the ocean. The experiment I completed used fresh water and sorbents that are easily available for students, however a more applicable experiment would look at salt water using solutions for oil spills such as oil dispersants or fertilizers that are composed of biological factors that could chemically take apart the oil.



“Oil Spill Cleanup Methods: How Do You Clean Up An Oil Spill?” Conservation Institute, 19 June 2013, www.conservationinstitute.org/oil-spill-cleanup-methods-how-do-you-clean-up-an-oil-spill/.

“Sustainability Throughout Our Product Lifecycle.” FiberVisions, FiberVisions LP, www.fibervisions.com/About-Us/Sustainability/Sustainability-Throughout-Our-Product-Lifecycle.aspx.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “How Does Oil Impact Marine Life?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, EPA, 4 May 2010, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/oilimpacts.html.