Practice solving real-world problems by testing oil-spill clean-up methods.

Impress the judges at your science fair by selecting a project with an environmental twist. Scientists still are researching the best way to clean up massive oil spills, and students can address this real-world problem. Fourth-graders are beginning to understand issues on a global level and are at the age when they want to do something to make the world a better place. Besides, experimenting with oil-spill clean-up techniques involves some really cool experiments.

Cleaning Up an Oil Spill

Pour 12 ounces -- approximately 350 ml -- of water into your clear plastic cup. Add 10 ml of Marvel Mystery Oil.

Use your spoon to try to scoop out the oil. Record observations.

Take a clean disposable diaper and remove the inner lining so you can get to the cotton-like pad. Pull apart the pads to collect the absorbent material inside -- sodium polyacrylate. Store the sodium polyacrylate in a zippered plastic bag and dispose of the rest of the diaper.

Pour 12 ounces -- approximately 350 ml of water into your clear plastic cup. Add 10 ml of Marvel Mystery Oil.

Sprinkle the diaper material -- sodium polyacrylate -- onto the oil so it is completely covered. Observe what happens to the oil. Wearing latex gloves, remove the oil-soaked material.

Repeat steps 4 to 5, instead using cotton balls that have been pulled thin. Try to use the same amount of both absorbent materials to keep the comparison fair.

Record observations: How much oil was removed? How difficult was it to remove? How much water was inadvertently removed in the process?

Optional Extensions of the Experiment: Ideas to Consider

Making adjustments to standard experiments gives your project a personal edge.

Try other materials. Allow students to select materials they think would be effective oil absorbers. Repeat the experiment, testing the additional materials.

Make water more like the ocean by adding salt. Do the absorbent materials work the same on the oil-spill clean-up in salt water?

Add waves: Use a large container of water, such as a dishpan. Drop in 10 ml of oil. Now mix it up by gently rocking the container back and forth like waves, or use a spoon to stir the water and oil. Do the clean-up methods still work as well?

Students decide to make their trials more like the actual ocean.

Turn on the wind: Place water in a large container, such as a dishpan. Add 10 ml of oil. Turn on a fan and make an attempt to clean up the oil.

Things Needed

  • ['Marvel Mystery Oil -- found in automotive stores', '16-ounce clear plastic cup', 'Plastic spoon', 'Cotton balls', 'Disposable diaper', '', 'Optional:', 'Wool, a sponge, peat moss, hay, Nerf toys, Styrofoam or other absorbent materials', 'Salt', 'Fan', 'Dishpan']


  • Marvel Mystery Oil is very similar in chemical composition to crude oil, but safer to use in experiments. It is also red in color, making the clean-up success easy to see. If you choose, cooking oil or baby oil also will work.

    This experiment can be messy. Be sure to have paper towels and a trash container handy.

    Make adjustments as necessary. Solving problems that arise is a main component of any scientific research.

    Take lots of photos of your experiment. They are a great way to demonstrate your process, especially since most science fairs will not allow the actual materials to be displayed.

    Research how real oil spills are cleaned up and be prepared to share what you have learned.


  • Wear latex gloves during the experiment.

    Dispose soaked materials in a trash can. Do not pour the oil or absorbent materials down the sink.