MIT’s Seaswarm technology makes the cleanup of future oil spills cheaper and easier

August 27, 2010

MIT's Seaswarm technology makes the cleanup of future oil spills cheaper and easier Too bad Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) didn’t have its Seaswarm technology  available in time for use in the BP oil spill.  According to researchers at MIT, Seaswarm is a fleet of autonomous robot skimmers that soak up oil like paper towels soak up water. 

MIT estimates that 5,000 of these robotic skimmers could have cleaned up the BP Oil Spill in one month.  Using the Seaswarm automous robots would also be cheaper and more effective than the skimmers used.

“We hope that giant oil spills such as the Deepwater Horizon incident will not occur in the future, however, small oil leaks happen constantly in off shore drilling,”[Senseable City Lab Director Carlo] Ratti said. “The brief we gave ourselves was to design a simple, inexpensive cleaning system to address this problem.”

The robots are 16 feet long and 7 feet wide.  Each one is powered by 21.5 square feet of solar panels that produce the energy of one 100W light bulb.  They require little to no maintenance and can work around the clock cleaning up spills.  The machines work in concert with each other through GPS and  wireless technology.  Moving as a group they “corral, absorb and process” the oil.  

A Seaswarm has been described as a “rolling carpet” that moves along the surface of the water. It uses a special nanowire mesh developed by Visiting Associate Professor Francesco Stellacci.  The mesh is able to absorb 20 times its weight in oil.  The nanowire is attached to the robotic skimmer like a conveyor belt.  The mesh absorbs oil from the water which is then heated up and burnt locally. 

“Unlike traditional skimmers, Seaswarm is based on a system of small, autonomous units that behave like a swarm and ‘digest’ the oil locally while working around the clock without human intervention,” explained Senseable City Lab Director Carlo Ratti

Of course since Seaswarm is only intended for surface cleanup, it will not be of use in underwater oil plumes like the 75 to 80 percent of the BP Oil Spill that remains in plumes below the surface.

The Seaswarm prototype will be unveiled tomorrow at the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion.  Should you be in Venice between tomorrow and November 21st, stop by the pavilion and take a look at what could very well be the future of oil spill cleanup.

Below is a video created by Senseable City Lab of the Seaswarm in action.


The top photo used is courtesy of the Senseable City Lab and titled:

The first Seaswarm prototype was tested in the Charles River in mid-August 2010. The vehicle’s flexible conveyor belt easily adapted to surface waves and the photovoltaic-covered ‘head’ maximized exposure to the sun.

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