Saving oiled wildlife with magic wands

Why oil matters

With the improving awareness of environmental sustainability, human start to study and use renewable energies such as solar, tidal and wind. But oil and coal are still major sources of energy and oil is the dominant fuel for transportation (World Energy Council). Accidental oil spill can happen during the extraction and transportation, which can cause serious problems on environment and wildlife. According to Philip Island National Park’s data, more than 400 little penguins were affected by last major oil spill in 2001. Little penguins are vulnerable since they swim in water surface searching for food. Oil mats feathers and let cold water get in, which makes penguins feel cold, harder to float on surface and hunting for food. Oil can easily be ingested by beak and damage liver.

Oiled penguins by The International Fund for Animal Welfare, from flickr


Traditional method for cleaning oil

One traditional way is washing by hand with detergents. But this method is labor intensive and costs time, and the efficiency of hand washing is not so high as well. On the other hand, chemical detergents have side effects on little penguins.

In Philip Island National Park, staff will also place knitted jumpers on oiled penguins to prevent them taking in toxic oil before the oil is removed. PINP received numbers of jumpers from the public through the Knits for Nature penguin jumper program. Now the program is closed and extra cute jumpers can still be purchased in Penguin Parade gift shop.

Knit penguin jumper by eyemage, from flickr


How magnetic wand works

Research on magnetic particle technology (MPT) has been conducted by Victoria University and PINP. This method is based on adsorption and magnetic attraction. Compared with detergent-based methods, MPT has higher efficiency and less potential damage on feather.

The first step of MPT methods is applying contaminant-sequestering magnetic particles on oiled animals. Oil and other contaminants can be adsorbed on the surface of magnetic particles. Then magnetic particles and contaminants can be removed by devices at the same time.

The magnetic devices have gradually been improved:

1) Magnetic tester: needs two hands to operate and is more suitable for laboratory experiments rather than field work.

2) Magnetic harvest: needs only one hand but is still too cumbersome for field work.

3) Electromagnetic device: not suitable as well because it cannot achieve desired magnetic strength to remove magnetic particles.

4) Magnetic wand: has small size and can be operated by one hand, which makes it suitable for field work and quick rescue at the first encounter.With the help of MPT and magnetic wands, staff can easily clean oiled animals by applying “magic powder” and waving their wands like doing magic.


MPT for managing oil spill

Research also suggests application of MPT for oil spill remediation because of its short operating time, high sorption capacity and high recovery efficiency of magnetic particles. This technology can possibly be used for industrial waste water treatment as well. Further studies can focus on optimization of devices, pre-treatment conditions and choice of higher efficiency magnetic particles.