The Deepwater Horizon oil spill earlier this year prompted many researchers to concentrate their efforts on developing better ways to clean up oil after such disasters. We’ve looked at approaches such as autonomous robots and underwater separators to collect the oil while it is still at sea, but students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have developed a novel approach to dealing with the oil once it winds up on shore – a vacuum cleaner.

Currently, cleaning up oil from the shoreline usually involves soaking up the oil with an absorbent material, such as bark or peat moss. Workers then have to remove the heavy, oil-soaked material and the remaining oil residue may have to be scrubbed off rocks.

To automate this arduous task the NTNU students developed a new kind of vacuum cleaner called MOSE (Mechanical Oil spill Sanitation Equipment) that blows bark or other absorbent materials onto oil spills, and then sucks the material up again. Its developers say it is four times more efficient in cleaning up after oil accidents than conventional techniques.

After the machine sprays the absorbent material onto the spill, rotating brushes work the oil and the absorbent material together. Once they are thoroughly mixed, the direction of the rotating brushes is reversed and the material is sucked up using a portable compressor/vacuum pump while the rocks are simultaneously scrubbed.

A hopper educator between the handheld unit and the vacuum pump feeds the absorbent material into the airflow when it is blowing, while a separator extracts the oil, water, beach material and absorbent material so it can be disposed of when it is sucking.

Currently, the hand-held unit weighs about 10kg (22 lb), but the engineers are working to cut its weight in half. They are also refining the design so that it can be folded up to be easily transported.

The invention started with an assignment for master’s students in NTNU’s Department of Product Design that asked them to make something useful that employs air and electronics. The resultant vacuum cleaner created by Silje Rabben and three of her fellow students has already won a number of awards and proved so successful that the students founded a company, Kaliber Industrial Design. They are now looking for investors to help market their invention.

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