Actor Kevin Costner told Congress that his company has developed a high-tech machine for separating oil and water that could slurp up as much as 200 gallons of oil every minute from the massive spill in the Gulf. BP has already tested the technology and put ten machines to use in the water.
Sounds great! How does it work?
The company, Oil Therapy Solutions, explains the mechanics of the machine on its website. If you want to read the description verbatim, it's at the end of the article.* Greg Lowry, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, helped me translate the jargon into simpler English.
"It's basically a centrifuge," Lowry says, a machine that spins rapidly to separate fluids using centrifugal (well, technically centripetal) force. Think about a washing machine in spin cycle. If you open it up, you'll see the wet clothes flung against the side of the washer. That's the same force Costner's machine employs. It spins the oily water, flinging the denser liquid, water, away from the lighter liquid, oil (which you know is lighter since you've seen the picture of it floating on top of the Gulf). It's the same technology beer companies use to spin the solid yeast particles of out their brew.