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This 14-Year-Old Discovered A New Approach To Cleaning Up Oil Spills

The project uses unconventional materials — what some people would consider garbage — to absorb oil.

Anika Bhagavatula, a 14-year-old student from Wilton, Connecticut, is one of the national finalists in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge — a science and engineering competition for middle school students that earns the winner a $25,000 award as well as title of "America's Top Young Scientist."

Bhagavatula's project uses unconventional materials — what some people would consider garbage — to absorb oil and perhaps one day, become a new, better way to clean up oil spills.

We spoke with her about how she came up with this idea and how she conducted her research. The following is a transcript of the video.

The reason why I wanted to pinpoint oil spills was because there has been a lot of talk about the Dakota pipeline. And the reason why people don't want this is because oil spills are a huge issue which can occur, obviously, from pipelines. And these oil spills can contaminate drinking-water sources and harm wildlife.

Hi, my name is Anika Bhagavatula, and I am 14 years old, and I am in eighth grade.

And so I wanted to find a natural sorbent which could clean up these oil spills and would replace harmful remediation solutions, which, while effective, can damage the environment. Right now, this is the sorbent that I use to clean up oil from oil spills.

So I wanted to focus on using the parts of fruit or natural materials that are typically thrown away. I tested different types of sorbent materials — banana peels, pomegranate husks, and orange peels — and I found that pomegranate husks and orange peels were the most effective.

So I first tested the amount of time it took to remove the oil from the water. Then I wanted to find the optimal weights of the sorbents.

I also wanted to find the optimal mix, since pomegranate husks worked better in freshwater and orange peels worked better in salt water. Then I tested the sorbent in motor oil, and I found that it was very effective, absorbing two to three times its own weight.

Depending on the size of the oil spill, different types of different sizes of sorbents can be used, and maybe they should be targeted for more pipeline spills, which are smaller.

And since this is adsorption — so what that means is the oil is coated on the outside of the peels — it can be assumed that with high-pressure compression, oil can be extracted from the sorbent, and then it can be reused since the composition hasn't been changed.

The next step that I would like to do with my mentor is to find a biodegradable material to put the filling or put the sorbent in so that the whole product would be biodegradable and can be used for oil spills as a natural material.

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