Scientists from Bristol University in the United Kingdom have discovered a way to clean up oil spills without leaving behind a mass of suds. Derived from iron-rich salts dissolved in water, the “magnetic soap” can be manipulated through simple magnetic forces rather than physical or chemical means. Although the surfactant is still highly experimental, the research raises the possibility of slick-neutralizing detergents that can be removed from sensitive environments once the job is done.

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Surfactants, defined as compounds with both hydrophilic (water-loving) and a lipophilic (oil-loving) sides, are commonly used as detergents, emulsifiers, or soaps. Although their ability to dissolve oils in water increases when they’re dissolved in solution, they’re also difficult to manipulate—and more important, withdraw—after the fact.

Researchers have previously explored soaps that are sensitive to light, carbon dioxide, or changes in pH.

Bristol University researchers have previously explored soaps that are sensitive to light, carbon dioxide, or changes in pH, temperature, and pressure. Their latest breakthrough, which appears in the January 2012 issue of Angewandte Chemie, is the world’s first soap to respond to a magnetic field.

Oil spills aren’t the only possible application for the technology, according to Julian Eastoe, a professor of chemistry at Bristol University and the project’s lead scientist. “From a commercial point of view, though these exact liquids aren’t yet ready to appear in any household product, by proving that magnetic soaps can be developed, future work can reproduce the same phenomenon in more commercially viable liquids for a range of applications from water treatment to industrial cleaning products,” he says.

In other words, cleaning up our messes just got a whole lot easier.

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+ Bristol University

[via Science Daily]