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Oil spill clean up simulation

Make an oil slick with oil and cocoa powder, then attempt to clean it with a string boom and cotton ball skimmers.
Science content (2016 curriculum): 
Chemistry: Physical Changes, Solutions, Mixtures and Separating (2, 4, 5, 6)
Earth/Space: Water cycle, Water conservation (2)
Earth/Space: Sustainable practices, Interconnectedness (2, 5, 7)
Science topic (2005 curriculum connection): 
Earth and Space Science: Renewable and Non-Renewable Resources (grade 5)
Lessons activity is in: 
  • half jam jar of vegetable oil
  • 4 Tablespoons cocoa
  • shallow container of water
  • string pieces about 20cm long
  • cotton balls
  • liquid dish soap, diluted in water

Sometimes water gets dirty in a way that is really hard to clean: oil spills.
We will model how spills are cleaned up to see how effective they are.

I will give you oil to spill in your ocean. (Show students the simulated oil: cocoa powder mixed into the vegetable oil in the jar.)
Then you will use the materials to clean up as well as we can:
String models the booms that are dragged across the water to stop the oil from spreading and bring it together. Hard if there is wind on water.
Cotton balls are the skimmers that stick the oil to them and pull it out of the water.
Last step, which we will do when you have cleaned up as much as you can, is to add a dispersant (detergent).

Add oil to your ocean.
Your model is 100 billion (11 zeros) times smaller than the oil that was leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. (210 million US gal)
What is happening to the oil? It spreads out. The Gulf of Mexico spill was a trillion (12 zeros) times larger area than your model. It is restricted in your container - but of course is not in the ocean so spreads further. See the Gulf oil spill at
Notice that some of your oil sinks - bitumen behaves like this, making it almost impossible to clean up.

Now try clean up:
Loop the string around a patch of oil, to model how booms are spread around an oil spill. Try and contain the oil and pull it to one side of the container. It is somewhat effective, as are booms for real oil spills.
Then use the cotton balls to try and soak up the oil. For real oil spills skimmers are used, which similarly soak up oil into absorbent pads. How effective is this in your model? It is hard to be fully effective for a real oil spill.
The last step is to add dispersant (or a detergent) to break up the oil droplets and disperse them. Add diluted dish soap to the remaining oil, to observe how it breaks the oil into smaller droplets. 2 million gallons of dispersant were used in the Gulf. Dispersants break up the oil, but it does not go away. They are also harmful to wildlife.

Spilled oil can harm living things in several ways. Oil is a poisonous chemical which animals can be exposed to internally through ingestion or inhalation, or externally on skin and in eyes, causing organ damage and cancer. When oil coats feathers and fur it destroys their ability to keep animals warm. Dispersants reduce the impact of oil on shoreline habitats, but disperse oil into deeper ocean water where it has harmful effects on deep ocean wildlife.

Grades tested: 
Gr 2
Gr 3
Gr 4
Gr 5
Brenda Koch
Teaching site: 
Aboriginal Focus Elementary
Activity originally developed and delivered: 

Aboriginal Focus School with the Scientist in Residence Program