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Saanich student invents biodegradable oil spill pads

Vicki Kleu spent less than $10 on materials to invent a biodegradable adsorbent pad that could revolutionize clean-up of marine oil spills.
Vicki Kleu-Science wiz
Vicki Kleu

A 16-year-old Saanich student is giving Mother Nature a run for her money by using an innovative science fair project to potentially improve the health of the natural environment.

Vicki Kleu spent less than $10 on materials to invent a biodegradable adsorbent pad that could revolutionize clean-up of marine oil spills.

“If you go down to the water you can always see a thin film of oil that’s on the water. No one really thinks that small amount is going to damage, they think, ‘It’s a small amount, it’ll be fine.’ No, it harms the ecosystem,” said Kleu, a Grade 11 Lambrick Park secondary student.

“It’s a part of protecting our environment that needs to be done.”

Her functioning prototype pads – called Oil RiDD’rs – are made of natural fibres and have proven to hold 50 times their weight of outboard motor oil.

With Kleu’s design, oil clings to the surface of the pads in a process called adsorption (as opposed to absorption, where one substance permeates the volume of another substance), allowing at least 95 per cent of the oil to be recovered.

“(The pad) could be rolled up, stored – it’s not very big. So it could just get thrown out onto the spill,” Kleu said. “Because the fibres prefer the oil to the water, they don’t let go of the oil – they prefer to hold onto it. It could sit there for a while, even with wave action, and it picks up more oil than water.”

Cheryl Nigh, a teacher at Gordon Head middle school, is Kleu’s science fair mentor. She says “the sky’s the limit” with Kleu’s invention, as it is, on the whole, a better oil spill clean-up system than any other synthetic or natural product on the market.

“This, for me, is going to be the highlight of my career,” Nigh said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever come across another science fair student that matches Vicki’s dedication so well. … She was able to step back and look for a simple solution to a big problem. Based on her science knowledge, she was able to see the forest for the trees.”

Kleu participated in the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair in April at the University of Victoria, and her project earned first place overall (plus nine awards and scholarships). The local win means Kleu heads to Canada-Wide Science Fair in Lethbridge, Alta. beginning next week.

She’ll compete against some 500 other bright Canadian students for awards, money and prizes.

“Vicki’s project is a well-designed innovation and it’s well tested. And it’s apparent she worked hard at this,” said Randy Enkin, president of the Society for the Advancement of Young Scientists, which organized the VIRSF.

“If her project lives up to its claims, it’s an inexpensive, renewable method to deal with oil spills, and it’s the sort of product that marinas would just have on stock to deal with any sort of spill. She’s helping solve a problem which is an immediate threat to our coastline.”

Kleu is no stranger to the Canada-Wide Science Fair. This will be her third consecutive year representing Vancouver Island, having previously won a silver medal nationally in 2011.

The adsorption materials Kleu used and her exact design remain under lock and key.

Kleu and Nigh are currently in the process of patenting the clean-up technology. Once that is complete, they’ll be looking for financial backing to manufacture and market the pads.

The Saanich teen says she’s not looking to make money off the product – all she wants to do in life is provide solutions that make life better for those around her.

“Even if I get nothing out of it, that’s fine. I just want it to be available. I want something available to marinas to use so there’s a method (to clean up oil spills) which is cheap and actually works,” she said. “I like helping people. And I feel like that’s my passion.”