Resources for teachers: CHEMISTRY

Clearing up oil spills


Key Stage: 4

Key idea:


Clearing up oil spills


You should be able to use the properties of oil to describe ways in which it can be removed from water.


Oil spills are a serious threat to the marine environment. Oil spreads rapidly so when an oil spill occurs it is essential that it is contained and recovered as soon as possible.

Many different recovery devices such as skimmers, booms and sorbents are used to collect oil on the surface of the water.

Sorbents are materials that recover oil through either absorption (when oil penetrates the pores of the material) or adsorption (when oil is attracted to the sorbent surface and adheres to it).


1. For this experiment you will need a glass bowl, vegetable oil, cocoa powder, different types of sorbents (paper towel, straw, cotton wool, rag, sponge, cat litter, wood fillings etc), pipette, tongs.

2. Take a glass bowl and fill it with water. Pour 20 drops of vegetable oil on the water (You can mix a bit of cocoa powder into the vegetable oil to make it look like crude oil).

3. Using the tongs place a small sample of the sorbent into the oil floating on the water. Record what happens.

4. Empty the bowl and fill it up with clean water, add another 20 drops of oil and repeat using all the different sorbents; for each one record what happens.


1. Which sorbent soaked up the “oil slick” the best?
2. Did the sorbents pick up water too? How can these affect the clearing process?
3. Did the sorbents sink or float?
4. How might wind, waves, currents and tides affect the cleaning process?
5. Describe other ways in which oil could be removed from water.

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February 2007