Resources for teachers: PHYSICS

What happens when oil spills on water?

Discipline: PHYSICS

Key Stage: 3

Key idea:


What happens when oil spills on water?


You will understand the behaviour of oil in water and relate it to the damage it causes to the marine environment


Oil is less dense than water; this means that oil spilled in water will float on the surface. It will spread out across the water depending on the type of oil and sea conditions such as wind, waves, currents and tides. By analysing these different factor scientists can predict the direction of the oil slick.


  • Get a large, clear glass bowl and fill it with water.
  • Pour a little vegetable oil on the water (You can mix a bit of cocoa powder into the vegetable oil to make it look like crude oil.) Carefully observe what happens.
  • To simulate rough sea conditions swirl the bowl or stir the mixture with a rod. Carefully observe what happens.


    1. Describe what happened when you poured oil into the bowl of water.
    2. What is the difference between ocean water and the tap water you used in this experiment? Do you think the results to this experiment would have been different if you had used ocean water?
    3. Describe what happened when you stirred the mixture of water and oil?
    4. How can wind, waves, currents and tides affect the mixing of the oil into the water?
    5. What is the effect of spilled oil on the marine environment?
    6. Describe ways in which you could remove the oil from the water.

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    February 2007