Researchers have developed a new, inexpensive device to detect oil spills and determine the type of oil that was spilled.

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Oil spills present a lot of challenges, not the least of which is identifying the kind of oil that has been spilled, and determining the best way to clean it up. Another is tracking how contaminated a particular area has become. Early detection is necessary to respond before too much oil mixes into the water.

As each kind of oil, crude or refined, absorbs ultraviolet light in different ways, it emits unique fluorescence spectrums, allowing people in the know to identify oils in this manner. However, until now, systems to do exactly that were expensive.

A team of researchers at the Universidad de Vigo in Spain have developed a much cheaper way to do this with an instrument that uses four photodiode detectors and different color filters made from cellophane. Using LEDs as light sources and a microcontroller like those found in drones, the device can identify three different crude and two different refined oil types so far. The researchers have created “fingerprints” of each type of oil using this instrument.

“Fast detection of a spill is crucial for a quick antipollution response to avoid, as much as possible, the progressive mixture of the oil into the water, which would make cleaning more difficult and inefficient,” said research team leader Jose R. Salgueiro. “Also, knowing the oil type makes possible a more specific response to counteract the pollution.”

In the future, such instruments could be placed in buoys and left to float in oceans, bays, or lakes for months at a time. Using simple radio modules, they could report data on oil spills back to scientists tasked with monitoring these bodies of water. To that end, the researchers are planning on working on two additions to make the instrument that much better. They’re planning on analyzing a wider variety of oils in order to increase the number of crude and refined types the device can identify, and working on a solar-powered design for use on buoys.

Technology like this, which not only improves our ability to monitor the environment but is also cheap to produce, is going to be huge in the ongoing battle to prevent further ecological damage to the Earth.