Oil Slick


Contributed By: COSI
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Discover which materials best clean up an oil spill.

What You Need: 

  • Yellow vegetable oil
  • Tablespoon
  • Clear plastic or glass bowl
  • Water
  • Spoon
  • Fishnet, cheesecloth, or gauze
  • Cotton balls
  • Polypropylene cloth

To Do and Observe: 

1) Fill the bowl approximately half full with water. 
2) Add a few tablespoons of oil until you can see the contrast. 
3) What happens to the oil when it comes in contact with the water? 
4) Which item do you think will remove the most oil and leave the most water? Try to remove the oil with each of the items.

What's Going On: 

Which items work best to collect the oil? Can you think of other ways to collect and dispose of the oil without causing further harm to the environment? 

Polypropylene and oil are both made of carbon and hydrogen; therefore, they are attracted to each other. Oil and water are made of different elements. They are not attracted to each other. An oil and water solution is an example of an "immiscible solution." They will never mix and will always separate into layers. 

Polypropylene is used to collect oil spilled on water, a major ecological and environmental challenge. Because polypropylene floats on water and absorbs oil, the spill is easily removed.

Parent/Teacher Tips: 

Cleaning up an oil spill in rough, stormy sea conditions is extremely hazardous and difficult. Challenge your children to research an historic oil spill, like the Exxon Valdez in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to learn more about the long-term effects of oil spills on the environment. 

Polypropylene is the common name of a synthetic cloth material often used for cold weather clothing such as gloves and sock liners. It can be purchased at most sporting goods stores.