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Until recently, the $1 billion-a-year oil cleanup industry has depended on skimmers, oil-munching microbes, sorbents, and even rags. At best, these methods recover only 20 percent of spilled oil. Since the Oil Pollution Act became effective last August, requiring those who spill oil to clean it up, there’s been keen interest in vastly superior technologies made from such environmentally friendly ingredients as oats, glass, and even the stuff that makes chewing gum chewy. In the pipeline:

When Elastol, made from the chewing-gum stuff, is applied to a spill, oil turns into a thick layer–like the skin on hot chocolate–that can be dragged off water, then recycled. The oil recovery rate is expected to reach 97 percent. Mobil deploys Elastol, made by General Technology Applications, twice a week on an oil plume that has seeped into Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek for 40 years.
Due to its unique design–like an airplane wing–Suparator’s skimming action forces water out from under collected crude, gradually jellifying the oil so it can be whisked away. Made by Environmental Recovery Resources, Suparator is an upstart here, but is used widely in oil-marinated Eastern Europe, where it cleans up 100 percent of their tainted waterways.
Microspheres are hair-thin glass beads coated with a non-toxic photocatalyst also found in Jell-O pudding. When sprinkled on a spill, the beads become coated with oil, which is then converted by the sun into CO2 and water, leaving sand. From Heller Environmental, Microspheres would have saved Exxon hundreds of millions of the $2.5 billion spent cleaning up after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe.
While concocting skin-care lotions, it occurred to Nurture Company’s chemists that if oats could soak up oil from acne-riddled skin, why not from an oil slick? Nurture Bioemulsifier is a recipe of specially treated pellets that sop up oil, then are dispersed by the tide. By providing tasty nutrients for microbes, the slick is eliminated naturally.
The System for the Control of Oil Leakage–SCOL–is designed for single-hull tankers, of which there are nearly 3,000 worldwide. From the Energy Transportation Group, SCOL works like this: If a hull is pierced, the pressure change forces oil through hoses and into empty ballast tanks. Had the Exxon Valdez been so equipped, 90 percent of the oil would have remained on board–and Congress would never have passed the Oil Pollution Act.

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