How to Extract Oil From Water in a Science Project

By Anna Roberts; Updated April 25, 2017

Millions of barrels of oil are shipped around the world in oil tankers on a daily basis. Sometimes sea transportation of oil results in accidents that spill vast amounts of oil into the ocean, causing habitat devastation and loss of wildlife. Oil spills can be cleaned up to some extent with materials that absorb it out of the water, called sorbents. Test a few sorbents on a small scale to see for yourself how they work and to what degree they can extract oil from water.

Prepare a work area covered with plastic or newspaper.

Cut or shred sorbent materials into pieces so you can measure them in a measuring cup. Make 3 cups of each. You can use almost any material as a potential sorbent. Shop towels, cotton, fur or hair, corn cob or husks, straw, coconut husks and feathers are all possibilities.

Put one cup of sorbent into each of three containers, working with one sorbent at a time.

Pour 3 cups water into a liquid measuring cup.

Pour a cup of oil into the water slowly. If bubbles form between the oil and water, wait for the bubbles to disappear to get a more accurate reading.

Place one cup of sorbent into the filter. Lower it into the water and oil and adjust it until it is completely submerged.

Leave the sorbent submerged for 30 seconds before lifting it out and letting it drain over the water and oil for another 30 seconds.

Measure and record the new water and oil levels. The water level is where the top of the water underneath the oil hit the measuring cup. The oil level is where the top of the oil layer hits the measuring cup.

Clean your filter with soap and water and top off your measuring cup so that it shows 3 cups water and 1 cup oil to prepare for the next measurement.

Repeat the procedure for the other two samples of the first sorbent, and then for the three samples of each of the remaining sorbents.

Record the results in a data table showing your beginning oil and water level, oil level after using sorbent, water level after using sorbent and ratio of final water and oil. The ratio is the remaining water divided by the remaining oil. Fill in the data for each trial of each sorbent.

Make another table showing the average ratio of each sorbent. Compare the average ratios for each material in a graph or chart to show which sorbent removed the most oil from the water.