50 years ago, scientists found a new way to clean up oil spills

Excerpt from the October 14, 1972 issue of Science News

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster floats atop the Gulf of Mexico

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster floats atop the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Chemical dispersants, which have been a staple in oil spill clean-up efforts since they came on the scene 50 years ago, were used to break down some of the oil. Certain microbes and setting fire to the oil helped too.

David L. Valentine/University of California, Santa Barbara

Oil on the waters Science News, October 14, 1972

[In the late 1960s], about the best means of cleaning up oil was to put straw on it, then scoop up the oily straw by hand or with pitchforks. Now industry … has devised an arsenal of oil cleanup chemicals. Thin-layer chemicals can be used to herd oil together and to thicken it…. Chemicals are available as absorbents too. Still other chemicals … disperse oil throughout the water. Other chemicals show promise as oil-burning agents.


Chemicals are the norm today, but the future of oil-cleanup technology may well be microbial. In recent years, researchers have shown that soil microbes broke down some of the oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico (SN Online: 6/26/15). And electrical bacteria, which channel electricity through their threadlike bodies, could help by turning oil munchers’ waste into fuel for the microbes, scientists reported (SN: 7/16/22 & 7/30/22, p. 24). Microbial mops aren’t yet ready for prime time, so chemical dispersants, fire and spongelike sorbents remain key tools in cleanup kits.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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