Oil Spill Clean-up

Oil spills are a devastating human-caused form of pollution that has lasting effects on the environment and marine wildlife. Oil spills can be very tricky to clean up – try out this experiment to see just how tricky it can be, and to test different materials to see which works the best.

A Bit About Oil and Oil Spills

What is oil, and what is it used for?
Oil is a type of energy commonly used across the world. It is a type of nonrenewable energy, meaning that it is only available in limited amounts and takes a lengthy amount of time to be replenished. Oil can be used as energy to heat your home or power your car. Other kinds of oil (like the olive oil or vegetable oil we’ll use in this experiment) are edible, and used in cooking.

Why do oil spills happen in the ocean?
When the mechanisms used to transport and collect oil such as pipelines break or burst, they can leak oil into the ocean. Most oil is collected on an “oil rig” in the ocean by digging into the Earth’s crust. The largest oil spill in history occurred in 2010 when a pipe burst on an oil rig.

How do oil spills affect the environment?
Oil spills are a human-caused form of environmental disaster. Oil is a toxic substance; it pollutes the water it spills in to and can harm the fish and animals in the area if they ingest it or if it gets onto their bodies. Oil spills also destroy the habitat of marine animals living in the environment it spills in. 

How are oil spills cleaned up? 
Oil spills are usually cleaned up using a variety of methods. The oil can be skimmed off of the surface of the water, removed using different chemicals, or even burned. 

Now, let’s do an experiment to try different materials to see which you find to be most efficient for cleaning up an oil spill.


  • Large container or bowl
  • Water 
  • Food colouring (optional)
  • Tablespoon
  • Olive oil, vegetable oil or another household cooking oil
  • Feathers
  • Various supplies to clean up the spill. Brainstorm what materials you would like to test out (examples could include cotton pads, sponges, towels, paper, etc.).


  1. Fill the large container or bowl with water so that it is halfway full. Stir in your favourite colour of food colouring if you choose.
  2. Recreate an oil spill! Pour a few spoonfuls of oil into the water. Watch what happens. STEM Q for You: What happened when you added oil to your container of water? The oils should have settled on top of the water. The tiny particles that make up the oil and water are called molecules. The molecules that make up water are packed extremely tightly together so they cannot let the oil molecules in between them, therefore the water molecules and the oil molecules stayed separate.

    Another reason why oil and water don’t mix is to do with their charges. Water is an example of a “polar” molecule, which means that the way that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms are arranged, result in one end of the water molecule having a positive charge and the other end of the water molecule having a negative charge. Oil is an example of a “non-polar” molecule because it does not carry any charge. Polar and non-polar molecules cannot mix together because their molecules cannot form bonds. Neat, huh?

  3. Add some feathers to the oil and water mixture. In our experiment, the feathers represent birds that live on or near the water, like seagulls, pelicans, etc. These animals’ feathers become coated with oil when an oil spill happens in their habitat.

  4. Make a prediction! Which of the materials you collected to help clean up the oil will work the best? 

  5. Try to clean up the oil in your water and off of the feathers using the materials you collected.  Was your prediction correct? Which one of the materials you collected worked best to clean up the oil spill? Compare each of your materials to determine why that specific material was the best to clean up the oil. What properties do each have that allows them to clean up the oil? Did they absorb the oil? Did they get rid of all of the oil? 


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