Teacher Notes

Oil Spill Containment

Flinn STEM Design Challenge™

Materials Included In Kit

Charcoal powder, 5 g
Oil, corn, 500 mL
Absorbent pads, 12" x 12", 2
Bottle 250-mL, with cap
Chenille wires, 15
Cotton balls, 150
Cups, plastic, 9 oz., 15
Foil pans, 8" x 8", 15
Medicine cups, 30-mL, 15
Paper clips, 100
Pipet, wide-stem, disposable, 30
Plastic bags, 15
Pony beads, pkg. of 250
Rubber bands, medium, 30
Rubber bands, large, 15
Spoons, 15
String, cotton
Straws, 50

Additional Materials Required

Liquid soap (optional)*§
Balance, 0.1 g precision†
Glue gun or strong glue (optional)*§
Graduated cylinder, 100-mL*‡†
Graduated cylinder, 500-mL (may be shared)*§
Newspaper (optional)*‡
Paper towels*‡
Weigh dish or paper†
*for each lab group
for Prelab Preparation
Parts A and B
§Part B only

Prelab Preparation

Simulated Oil Mixture

  1. Measure 250 mL of corn oil and pour into the empty bottle included in the kit.
  2. Measure 2 g of charcoal powder and add it to the oil.
  3. Place the cap on the bottle and securely tighten.
  4. Shake vigorously for 30–60 seconds until the mixture is consistently blended. Label the bottle, oil mixture.
Containment Materials
  1. Cut the two absorbent pads into 7 cm x 7 cm squares resulting in a total of 32 pads.
  2. Glue, tape and soap solution may be provided as options in addition to the materials provided.

Safety Precautions

Charcoal powder causes eye irritation and may cause respiratory irritation. Avoid breathing dust or fumes. Wear eye protection and gloves. Remind students to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory. Please review current Safety Data Sheets for additional safety, handling and disposal information.


Please consult your current Flinn Scientific Catalog/Reference Manual for general guidelines and specific procedures, and review all federal, state and local regulations that may apply, before proceeding. Water and oil/charcoal mixture may be disposed of down the drain with an excess of water according to Flinn Suggested Disposal Method #26a.

Lab Hints

  • Enough materials are provided in this kit for 30 students working in pairs or for 15 student groups. Both parts of this laboratory activity can reasonably be completed in two 50-minute class periods. The prelaboratory assignment may be completed before coming to lab, and the data compilation and post-lab questions may be completed the day after the lab.
  • This activity may be extended over several days giving students time to research and develop the best process to complete the Design Challenge.
  • This activity may be done in a demonstration tray or over newspapers to make cleanup easier.
  • Other items may be used to create the containment devices if approved by the instructor.
  • The challenge can be regulated by asking students to bring their remediated water in the pie pan to a central location to measure the volume of remaining oil. The contents are poured into a 500-mL graduated cylinder, allowed to settle and the oil volume is recorded. If a large graduated cylinder is not available, a series of smaller cylinders can be used and the results added together. It is also easier to accurately determine the volume of oil remaining with smaller graduations.
  • Students should pour the oil mixture into the foil pan only when their containment method is ready. Do not leave the oil mixture in the pan for longer than one class period. Some charcoal may fall to the bottom and react with the aluminum, creating small holes in the pan.

Teacher Tips

  • Allow students to research the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 prior to conducting this activity. Numerous publications provide information about what happened, and the environmental and economic impacts and clean-up efforts.

Correlation to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Science & Engineering Practices

Asking questions and defining problems
Planning and carrying out investigations
Constructing explanations and designing solutions
Obtaining, evaluation, and communicating information
Developing and using models

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
MS-ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
MS-ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems
HS-ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution
HS-ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

Crosscutting Concepts

Scale, proportion, and quantity
Structure and function
Cause and effect
Systems and system models

Performance Expectations

MS-ETS1-1. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.
MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.
MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.
HS-ETS1-1. Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.
HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.
MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Answers to Prelab Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of using a fire boom?

    Fire booms are useful in that they can completely burn off oil on top of the water. The cons are that they cause air pollution, can only be used when winds are low, and smell extremely offensive for surrounding workers and wildlife.

  2. What possible drawbacks may occur as a result of using dispersants?

    While dispersants make oil easier for bacteria to digest, the dispersant and dispersed oil may have harmful effects on marine life.

  3. A relatively small oil spill occurred 10 miles off the coast of Houston, TX, on a day with 1–3 mph winds.
    1. Which cleanup method would you recommend?

      A boom combined with skimmers might be an effective method for this spill.

    2. Give an explanation your answer.

      The oil spill is small and winds are low.

Sample Data

Part A

Part B

Answers to Questions

Part A

  1. Give an explanation for your choice of containment material.

    A cotton ball is very absorbent.

  2. Was the containment materials chosen in Part A effective in removing the oil? Explain.

    In Part A, the oil spill was absorbed with a cotton ball. The cotton ball did remove some of the oil, but it also removed a great deal of water.

  3. What challenges will Part B present that are different than Part A?

    Part B has a larger water sample with greater surface area and also includes land area—the sides of the pan. It may be necessary to use a type of boom to gather the oil in one region of the pan before attempting to remove it.

Part B
  1. How much oil remained in the environment after remediation?

    After remediation, approximately 3 mL of oil remained in the environment.

  2. Consider the method chosen for removing the oil from the pan.
    1. How effective were the containment materials in removing the oil and keeping it away from land (the sides of the pan)? Explain.

      The materials chosen were quite effective. The straw on a chenille wire served to gather the majority of the oil in the center of the pan. Little oil leaked outside of the boom. The pipet was able to remove a fair amount of oil but also removed water.

    2. Were the materials chosen more or less effective than the one used in Part A? Explain.

      The materials chosen for Part B worked better than the material from Part A. Since there was a greater surface area, it would have taken longer to blot off the oil with cotton balls. Also, the boom was quite useful in keeping the oil from the land.

  3. Compare your results to other groups in the class. Which method seemed to be most effective?

    Answers will vary.

  4. During an actual oil spill, several other negative consequences occur that are not addressed in this activity. List three examples of adverse effects from large quantities of oil being released into the oceans.

    Actual oil spills in the ocean or gulf can lead to lost lives of humans working on the oil rigs, destroying ecosystems of ocean life, and environmental and economic damage to surrounding lands/properties.


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Deepwater-Horizon-oil-spill-Of-2010 (Accessed July 2016). Spill

Containment Methods. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/Oil-andchemical-spills/oil-spills/spill-contaminant methods.html (Accessed July 2016).

Student Pages

Oil Spill Containment


In 2010, the world experienced the largest marine oil spill in history. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil from the time of the explosion to its containment almost three months later. The company responsible for the spill employed a variety of containment strategies to mitigate the damaging effects of this accident.


  • Oil spills
  • Environmental impact
  • Pollution


Oil spills cause devastation to ecosystems not just in the immediate area of the spill, but also for numerous surrounding miles. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused closures in more than a third of federal waters in the gulf for most of the fishing season and left an estimated 8,000–12,000 unemployed in a variety of industries. In addition, the spill resulted in the death of countless animals and caused undetermined long-term effects to the environment.

When an oil spill occurs, several strategies may be employed to contain the pollution. Booms are floating physical barriers made of plastic or similar materials intended to slow the spread of oil and keep it contained. Professionals arrange booms across a narrow entrance to the ocean, such as a stream, to separate that entrance and keep the oil from entering. Booms are also placed near environmentally sensitive locations such as coral reefs or beaches. As oil ages or mixes with sediments, it can become dense and sink, smothering the coral.

Booms come in three different forms. A hard boom consists of plastic held by a floating tube at the top and a weight at the bottom creating an underwater “wall.” Hard booms are most useful when currents or winds are low. A sorbent boom is a long cylinder constructed from absorbent material capable of soaking up oil. Sorbent booms rest on the top of the water’s surface. Unlike hard booms, they do not extend below surface. Fire booms consist of relatively short metal plates that serve as a skirt with floating metal cylinders at the top. Their purpose is to contain oil for a short time until it can be ignited and burned. Burning is best conducted when the oil is fresh and the weather is calm.

Another method to remediate oil spills is by using skimmers. Skimmers are boats that can remove oil from the water’s surface before it spreads. Skimmers can also be used together to tow a collection boom concentrating the oil to a smaller area where it can be removed by the skimmer. Absorbent material or a vacuum system may also be used in a skimmer to remove the oil.

Lastly, aircraft and boats can release dispersants to treat spilled oil. Dispersants cause the oil to form small droplets, increasing the evaporation rate and allowing greater exposure to the action of bacteria that digest oil. The resulting oil droplets mix easily with water, so the oil does not stay on the surface. Both the chemical dispersant and the dispersed oil may have harmful effects on marine life.

Experiment Overview

The purpose of this activity is to efficiently clean up a simulated oil spill. The effectiveness of the cleanup will be measured by volume of oil remaining in the environment after clean up. Improvements and additions will then be made to the containment method(s) to increase overall effectiveness on a larger scale.


Part A
Oil mixture, 5 mL
Cup, clear, 9 oz.

Part B
Oil mixture, 10 mL
Foil pan, 8" x 8"

Parts A and B
Absorbent pad*
Chenille wire*
Cotton balls*
Graduated cylinder, 100-mL
Medicine cup, 30-mL
Paper clips*
Paper towels*
Pipet, disposable, wide-stem*
Plastic bag*
Pony beads*
Rubber bands, medium or large*
String, cotton*
*Containment material options

Prelab Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of using a fire boom?
  2. What possible drawbacks may occur as a result of using dispersants?
  3. A relatively small oil spill occurred 10 miles off the coast of Houston, TX, on a day with 1–3 mph winds.
    1. Which cleanup method would you recommend?
    2. Give an explanation for your answer.

Safety Precautions

The materials used in this activity are considered nonhazardous. Wear eye protection and gloves as some of the tasks can be messy. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before leaving the laboratory. Please follow all laboratory safety guidelines.


Part A. Introductory Activity

  1. Using a graduated cylinder, measure 100 mL of tap water.
  2. Pour the water into the clear plastic cup.
  3. Measure 5 mL of the oil mixture using a 30-mL medicine cup.
  4. Gently pour the oil into the cup of water. Wait until the oil forms a layer on top of the water.
  5. Select any one containment material from the Materials section and remove as much oil as possible from the cup.
  6. Once you have finished, pour the mixture remaining in the cup into a 100-mL graduated cylinder to measure the amount of oil remaining. Wait until the oil floats to the top to measure the remaining oil.
  7. Complete Part A of the Oil Spill Containment Worksheet.
Part B. Design Challenge

The challenge is to improve upon the procedure used in Part A in order to remove the greatest amount of oil from a foil pan with water without allowing the oil to reach the sides of the pan (the sides of the pan represent land). Follow these guidelines when designing your oil-spill containment and clean-up procedures.
  • The pie pan must contain at least 300 mL of water.
  • The oil spill must be 10 mL. Note: Do not pour the oil into the water until the containment solution is ready.
  • A maximum of three different items from the containment materials options may be used. Your instructor may limit the quantity of each different item.
  • Other common school supplies (e.g., scissors, tape) may be used with permission from your instructor.
  • At the end of the challenge, test the effectiveness of remediation methods used by carefully pouring the remaining solution from the foil pan into a large graduated cylinder to measure the remaining oil. Note: The Background section refers to use of fire booms to treat oil spills. Although fire booms are one method of treating actual oil spills, they should not be used as a means of treating oil in this activity.
  • Consult your instructor for appropriate disposal procedures.

Student Worksheet PDF


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