Among the numerous threats to drinking water and wastewater quality presented by ongoing climate change, the increasing likelihood of oil spills at sea is one of the most challenging. As ABC News reported recently, with sea levels rising and stronger storms striking, these water-contamination events could become more likely than ever.
But a recent discovery that may have once seemed like science fiction could be the sustainable solution we need.
Researchers at University of California, Riverside (UCR) have produced a solar-powered robotic film that can be deployed on the ocean surface to remove contamination in places where available solutions are not practical, like remote regions of the earth. They call it the Neusbot.
“Powered by light and fueled by water, the film could be deployed indefinitely to clean remote areas where recharging by other means would prove difficult,” Science Daily reported. “While other scientists have created films that bend in response to light, they have not been able to generate the adjustable oscillation of which Neusbot is capable. This type of motion is key to controlling the robot and getting it to function where and when you want.”
Although the new device is decidedly modern, it actually borrows a critical component from an outdated predecessor: the film is powered by boiled water in a similar way to a steam engine. The Neusbot’s middle layer holds water, iron oxide, and copper nanorods, which use sunlight to heat the water and power its motion.
“If sunlight is used for power, this machine is sustainable, and won’t require additional energy sources,” said UCR chemist Zhiwei Li, per Wonderful Engineering. “Normally, people send ships to the scene of an oil spill to clean by hand. Neusbot could do this work like a robot vacuum, but on the water’s surface.”
Li’s team at UCR specializes in creating robots from nanomaterials, and that expertise helped it figure out a way to control Neusbot’s direction by adjusting the angles of its light sources. It is equipped with a hydrophobic bottom layer that ensures it will always float to the surface of the water, and the materials used are capable of withstanding high salt concentration.
With the problem of getting a robotic water cleaner to the farthest reaches of our oceans now potentially solved, the next task will be in adding another layer to the Neusbot that can absorb oil or other contaminants.
“We want to demonstrate these robots can do many things that previous versions have not achieved,” Li said, according to Science Daily. Then, the Neusbot may be able to address oil spills wherever and whenever they occur.