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An Environmentally-Friendly Oil Spill Experiment

Do you want to try cleaning up an oil spill for yourself? This experiment will help you understand why it is such a difficult task. All of the tools you will need are environmentally friendly and easy to find.

You need:

To prepare the fresh water:

  1. Fill baking dish with cold tap water to within 1 cm of rim.
  2. Add 5-6 drops of food dye.
  3. Mix dye and water with a stirring stick.
  4. Let solution settle.
  5. Answer question 1 in Observations.

To simulate crude oil:

  1. Place 3 tbsp. of vegetable oil in mug.
  2. Add 2 tbsp. of cocoa powder.
  3. Mix cocoa powder and oil thoroughly with a popsicle stick.

To contaminate fresh water:

  1. Very slowly pour simulated crude oil from a height of 1 cm onto the top of the fresh water dish. If you pour the oil too quickly, the experiment won't work - start over!
  2. Answer question 2 in Observations.
  3. Wait 3 minutes.
  4. Do you want to change your answer to question 2 in Observations?

To test the sorbents:

  1. Place a small sorbent sample into the centre top of the contaminated fresh water.
  2. Answer questions 3, 4, 5 and 6 in Observations.
  3. Remove sorbent with tweezers or tongs.
  4. Repeat step 1 with other sorbent samples.
  5. Answer questions 7 and 8 in Observations.
  6. Clean out contaminated fresh water.
  7. Prepare new simulated fresh water following instructions above.
  8. Add detergent to the oil-contaminated freshwater.
  9. Answer questions 9 and 10 in Observations.

To determine how oil effects feathers:

  1. Dip feather into oil-contaminated fresh water.
  2. Answer questions 11 and 12 in Observations.

Repeat all of the above procedures substituting an ocean for the fresh water.

To prepare the ocean, follow the fresh water procedures except add 1 tsp. of salt and mix it with the water before step 2. At the end of the ocean experiments, answer question 13 in Observations.


  1. How is the fresh water/ocean different from tap water?
  2. What happened to the oil when you dropped it on the fresh water/ocean? Did it sink? Float? Mix in?
  3. How much oil did the sorbent clean up? How quickly?
  4. Does the sorbent pick up water too? If so, how can you tell?
  5. Does the sorbent sink or float?
  6. What is the condition of the contaminated sorbent?
  7. How would you pick up the oil-contaminated material in a "real" oil spill in fresh water/the ocean?
  8. How would you dispose of the oil-contaminated material in a "real" oil spill?
  9. How much of the detergent is used?
  10. How clean is the fresh water/ocean now that it has dishwashing liquid in it?
  11. What happens when a feather gets oil on it?
  12. How might an oiled feather affect a bird?
  13. Are the results of the experiment different when you use fresh water instead of an ocean?

YES I Can! Science

YES I Can! resources for "real-time" science events are supported, in-part, by a generous grant from Suncor Energy Foundation