Cleaning Up After an Oil Spill

With the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico growing everyday, people around the country are trying to find ways to clean it up. Just imagine if the solution to the spill was this simple: sprinkle a small amount of a non-toxic powder onto the layer of oil and in seconds the powder bonds to the oil, forming a sponge-like material that can be easily removed from the surface of the water.

It’s more than just a dream… a form of superabsorbent polymer technology is changing the way environmental scientists approach oil spill and waste management problems. Enviro-Bond 403 Polymer was created by Larry Thompson and bonds quickly and safely to liquid hydrocarbons including crude oil, diesel fuel and gasoline. The bonding is so complete that it literally encapsulates the liquid hydrocarbons in just seconds.

The oil begins to hook onto the dry polymer and turns it into something that can be picked up by a crane. The material can then be burned and used for energy and it doesn’t release any bad byproducts into the environment.

The oil absorbing polymer is being used to help clean up the oil spill on land, but the spill is becoming too massive to use the polymer in the open ocean. It is also a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning the same amount of polymer equal to the oil must be used for it to be effective.

I first met Larry Thompson while researching other kinds of superabsorbent polymers in 1992. I often share the inspirational story of how Larry invented this polymer during my teacher workshops and keynote speeches. Larry was truly passionate about his discoveries and did everything possible to encourage children to better understand the world of chemistry.

Larry Thompson passed away in March of 2004 from a rapid spreading cancer in his liver and pancreas. Up until the last few days of his life, Larry was sending emails and talking with people on the phone about the benefits of his oil absorbing polymers. I recently spoke at the National Honors Society national convention in Florida. After the presentation, a ninth grade girl came up to me and said, “I don’t think that I’ll ever be as good a scientist as that man who invented the oil polymer, but I can only hope that I make a discovery that helps the world as much as his did.” I shared this with Larry in our last email correspondence. He will be greatly missed.

For more on the special polymer and an experiment you can do at home, check out Oil Absorbing Polymer on SteveSpanglerScience.com.

5 replies
  1. Merrick
    Merrick says:

    You described in one video I watched that someone told you if the Enviro-Bond 403 Polymer was used on the main spill, it in itself, would be “an environmental disaster”. Could you explain this further? I realize I can’t even fathom the scope of it, but hasn’t the damage been done? Or would use of the polymer at sea cause a DIFFERENT environmental disaster (blocking light- phytoplankton, physical blockage on surface- mammals, etc.)?

    Barring the above, and moving on the the massive amount of polymer needed for a 1:1 ratio to the spill – it would be very difficult, but it would be possible, wouldn’t it?

    My apologies if you’ve already been asked this a bunch of times..



  2. Julie Gintzler
    Julie Gintzler says:

    I believe Steve was saying that adding another foreign substance to an already deeply stressed environment would be a mistake. In addition, with the rampant flow of the oil, adding the polymer at that point would be like putting a bandaid on a severed limb.

  3. Jessica Jin
    Jessica Jin says:

    Hi Steve! This is what my science fair topic is about. (What substances absorb oil the best?) I need to research my topic and I’m buying this from your online store. What is this called? (P.S. What other substances are the best for absorbing oil?)


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