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That's Slick! Using Polymers to Clean Oil Spills

Grades: 7-12
Author: Ryan Kiddey
Source: Original - This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EEC- 1542358.


This lesson will help a teacher provide in-depth, age appropriate instruction related to intermolecular forces, miscibility, and oil absorbing polymer. Additionally, the lesson has an environmental component which gives students a relevant, real-life example of the effects of an oil spill and how such a disaster could be dealt with. There is an in-depth laboratory which allow students to test the effectiveness of the oil absorbing polymer under specific conditions – pH, temperature, salinity, and its effectiveness on bird feathers.


What should students know as a result of this lesson?

Students will be able to identify:

  • The difference between four major intermolecular forces
  • Why oil and water cannot mix
  • The basic idea of what polymer is
  • That there is a polymer that absorbs oil
  • Different factors that affect the oil absorbing polymers ability to work effectively in various conditions and on bird feathers

What should the students be able to do as a result of this lesson?

Students will be able to do the following:

  • Define and describe the following intermolecular force interactions (IMF): ion-dipole, hydrogen bonding, dipole-dipole, and London dispersion
  • Describe why oil and water cannot mix in terms of intermolecular forces and polarity
  • Define polymer and oil absorbing polymer
  • Describe why oil absorbing polymer will absorb oil and water
  • Identify the ideal conditions in which the oil absorbing polymer works best (pH, temperature, salinity)
  • Determine if oil absorbing polymer is a good product to use to clean birds that have been covered in oil


Below are the materials needed to complete all four experiments in the lab:

  • Marvel Mystery Oil, 40-ml
  • Enviro-Bond Polymer, 20-g
  • 1M HCL, 1-ml
  • 1M NaOH, 1-ml
  • 50-ml beaker, 3
  • pH Probe
  • Temperature Probe
  • Ring Stand w/ clamp
  • 10-ml graduated cylinder
  • 25-ml graduated cylinder
  • Goggles
  • Gloves
  • Absorbing pad, 2
  • Weigh dish, 5
  • Balance
  • 1-ml Pipet, 5
  • 600-ml beaker
  • Stopwatch
  • Hot Plate
  • Ice
  • NaCl(s), 0.9-g
  • Dawn dish soap, 1-ml
  • Bird feather, 2
  • Watch glass, 2



Day One: Introduction to Intermolecular Forces (IMF)


  • Demo oil and water demonstration using Marvel Mystery Oil. Ask students why the oil and water do not mix. Write their ideas on the board. Then add Enviro-Bond 403 (oil absorbing polymer) to the oil and have students observe what happens. Write their thoughts on the board regarding why they think what they saw occurred.


  • It has been my experience that students in an introductory chemistry course have no idea that molecules can interact with each other without bonding. They also have never heard of intermolecular attraction. They have heard of bonding (intramolecular), but not intermolecular.
  • PowerPoint lesson is presented to students with various questions to prompt students with. While lesson is being presented the students will have a 'student note' version of the presentation. This is where they can take their notes. Both IMF PowerPoint lesson and student notes are included in this lesson.

Day Two: IMF worksheet and Oil Absorbing Polymer Lesson


  • Begin class by passing out a worksheet on intermolecular forces. Allow students to work on this worksheet independently or in lab groups. When finished, call on each group to answer one question from the worksheet at random. Let the students share their answers then facilitate a discussion on why each answer was either correct or incorrect.


  • Present PowerPoint lesson on Oil Absorbing Polymer. This lesson focuses on the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The lesson discusses the disaster while describing why oil and water do not mix. The lesson then prompts students to brainstorm ways to clean an oil disaster area. Finally, students learn what a polymer is and the basic structure of Enviro-Bond 403. A discussion of how it may absorb oil ends the presentation.
  • There is a PowerPoint lecture/lesson as well as a student note version of this section of the lesson.

Day Three and Four: That's Slick! Using Polymers to Clean Oil Spills


  • There are four different experiments students will perform on the Oil Absorbing Polymer. They are as follows:
    • pH Test (low, neutral, high)
    • Temperature (freezing, warm)
    • Salinity (seawater, freshwater)
    • Feather (using polymer and Dawn dish soap to clean bird feathers)
  • It will take two days to get through all four experiments. Students are required to collect data and answer relevant questions regarding the polymer, intermolecular forces, and ecological considerations.
  • When all experiments are completed and the laboratory questions are finished each group will be required to share their results with the class.


Student exploration will occur when students are...

  • prompted to answer questions oil/water demonstration
  • prompted to answer questions related to why oil absorbing polymer work
  • tasked with working on the IMF worksheet
  • prompted to answer questions regarding cleaning an area devastated by an oil spill
  • tasked to experiment with the oil absorbing polymer under different conditions


Explanation is given during...

  • lesson on intermolecular forces
  • discussion on answers to worksheet questions on intermolecular forces
  • lesson on oil absorbing polymer
  • facilitated discussion during laboratory
  • facilitated discussion while students present their findings to the class


Elaboration occurs during the laboratory experience. Students are asked to determine whether or not oil absorbing polymers are a practical way to clean the environment affected by an oil spill disaster. This requires students to pull from the knowledge they gained throughout the four day lesson.


Knowledge in the following areas:

  • covalent and ionic bonds
  • covalent and ionic compounds
  • ions and why they are charged
  • electronegativity
  • polarity
  • basic molecular structures

Best Teaching Practices

Students are encouraged to take notes on packets that have images related to the lesson. They are also encouraged to draw pictures related to specific concepts. Drawing promotes long-term memory. Students must make careful observations during their laboratory experience and draw on their content knowledge to give insightful conclusions to laboratory questions.

Alignment with Standards

NGSS Standards:

  • HS-PS1-3. Plan and conduct an investigation to gather evidence to compare the structure of substances at the bulk scale to infer the strength of electrical forces between particles.
    • [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on understanding the strengths of forces between particles, not on naming specific intermolecular forces (such as dipole-dipole). Examples of particles could include ions, atoms, molecules, and networked materials (such as graphite). Examples of bulk properties of substances could include the melting point and boiling point, vapor pressure, and surface tension.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include Raoult’s law calculations of vapor pressure.]
  • HS-PS1-5. Apply scientific principles and evidence to provide an explanation about the effects of changing the temperature or concentration of the reacting particles on the rate at which a reaction occurs.
    • [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on student reasoning that focuses on the number and energy of collisions between molecules.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to simple reactions in which there are only two reactants; evidence from temperature, concentration, and rate data; and qualitative relationships between rate and temperature.]
  • HS-PS2-6. Communicate scientific and technical information about why the molecular-level structure is important in the functioning of designed materials.
    • [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the attractive and repulsive forces that determine the functioning of the material. Examples could include why electrically conductive materials are often made of metal, flexible but durable materials are made up of long chained molecules, and pharmaceuticals are designed to interact with specific receptors.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to provided molecular structures of specific designed materials.]

Ohio Standards:

C.PM.6: Intermolecular forces of attraction

  • Types and strengths
  • Implications for properties of substances
  • Melting and boiling point

Content Knowledge

Knowledge in the following areas:

  • covalent and ionic bonds
  • covalent and ionic compounds
  • ions and why they are charged
  • electronegativity
  • polarity
  • basic molecular structures


The following safety precautions must be followed:

  • Eye protection must be worn at all times during laboratory.
    • The following materials used during lab can be irritating or harmful to the eyes: glass if broken, 1M hydrochloric acid, 1M sodium hydroxide, Marvel Mystery Oil, and hot water.
  • Nitrile glove must be worn at all times during laboratory.
    • The following materials used during lab can be irritating or harmful to the skin: Marvel Mystery Oil, 1M hydrochloric acid, and 1M sodium hydroxide. Oil will be messy.
  • Absorbing pad should be placed where students conduct their experiments so any excess acid or base will be absorbed, as well as oil to prevent an oily mess.


Oil spill disasters are, unfortunately, part of our modern world. Scientists are working on various methods to clean oil slicks quickly and efficiently, while also supporting the wildlife that live in the affected area.

Intermolecular forces are one of the major reasons why life has been able to physically evolve and persist. They hold DNA molecules together, make liquid water a liquid at room temperature, and why we cannot walk through walls! They are the reason why we have three basic states of matter (solid, liquid, gas). They are fundamental in the study of chemistry and all aspects of life (medicine, engineering, etc.) that depend on the science of chemistry.


The worksheet and lab can be assessed either formatively or summatively. A summative test could also be created based on this lesson.

Other Considerations

Grouping Suggestions:

  • Groups of two are ideal if you have enough supplies for the laboratory.

Pacing/Suggested Time:

  • Four days (80 minute blocks)

Printable PDF Worksheets

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