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What is an Oil Skimmer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An oil skimmer is a piece of equipment which is designed to clean up spilled oil. There are a number of applications for oil skimmers, and there are a number of different styles on the market to meet various needs. These devices are used to clean up after tanker spills, to clarify mixtures of oil, water and other substances for commercial use, and to clean up various pumps and tanks in facilities which handle oil and other substances.

Oil skimmers fall into two basic categories. One type of oil skimmer is intended to remove oil in a usable state, while the other removes oil along with assorted other impurities. Oil skimmers pop up in some surprising places; many restaurants, for example, have oil skimmers in their grease traps to prevent oil and grease from clogging their drains. The use of oil skimmers is also an important aspect of environmental cleanup.

Oil floating on water.
Oil floating on water.

There are a number of different ways in which an oil skimmer can work. Some rely on the simple operation of gravity, allowing oil to float to the top of the oil skimmer and then pushing the oil into a storage container. Other oil skimmers use belts, wheels, or rotating drums which are coated in substances which attract oil to pull oil from a contaminated fluid. Some fluids can be run through a centrifuge, which will pull the oil out of the liquid, while others are coalesced by being passed through a substance which will coagulate the oil and pull it out.

Oil skimmers may be used to remove oil that is floating on the surface of a liquid.
Oil skimmers may be used to remove oil that is floating on the surface of a liquid.

When quick containment is needed, some companies set up weir skimmers. These oil skimmers are floated on the water around the spill, and they allow water to flow through, but not oil. In these instances, the weirs serve two functions: they contain the spill, and they get a head start on cleanup. Cleanup personnel can also use hand held oil skimmers which essentially vacuum up the oil, while others deposit sponges or other absorbent materials into the spill to collect the oil so that it can be removed.

Oil skimmers come in various sizes, ranging from industrial oil skimmers which are designed to handle a high volume of contaminated material to smaller skimmers which are used by hand or on small spills. The sooner an oil skimmer is applied to an oil spill, the more successful it will be, as oil tends to spread into a slick, a very thin layer of oil which floats on top of water and other carrier fluids. Slicks are difficult to clean up since they are so thin, but they can deal a lot of damage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an oil skimmer and how does it work?

An oil skimmer is a device designed to remove oil floating on the surface of a liquid. It works by utilizing the difference in viscosity and surface tension between oil and water, allowing the skimmer to selectively separate and collect the oil. This is often achieved through a physical barrier, absorbent material, or a rotating drum that the oil adheres to and is then scraped off.

What are the different types of oil skimmers?

There are several types of oil skimmers, including weir skimmers, which use a dam-like structure to collect oil; oleophilic skimmers, which attract oil to a rotating belt or drum; and non-oleophilic skimmers, which use a variety of methods to separate oil without relying on oil's affinity for certain materials. Each type is suited for different conditions and oil viscosities.

Where are oil skimmers commonly used?

Oil skimmers are commonly used in a variety of settings, including industrial sites, wastewater treatment facilities, and natural water bodies affected by oil spills. They play a crucial role in maintaining water quality by removing oil from coolant and wash water, as well as in environmental cleanup efforts to protect ecosystems from oil pollution.

How effective are oil skimmers in oil spill response?

Oil skimmers are highly effective tools in oil spill response, especially when deployed promptly. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, skimmers can recover thousands of gallons of oil per day, significantly mitigating environmental damage. Their effectiveness depends on the type of oil, the conditions of the water, and the design of the skimmer used.

Can oil skimmers be used in both freshwater and saltwater environments?

Yes, oil skimmers can be used in both freshwater and saltwater environments. They are designed to operate in various conditions and can be adapted to handle the specific characteristics of different bodies of water, including variations in salinity, temperature, and the presence of debris or other contaminants.

Are oil skimmers environmentally friendly?

Oil skimmers are considered environmentally friendly as they provide a mechanical means of removing oil from water without the use of chemicals. This method of oil removal minimizes the impact on aquatic life and helps preserve the quality of the water. Additionally, recovered oil can sometimes be recycled, reducing waste and promoting sustainability.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


A serious question lies here with the Gulf spill, and that is, why were the 10-12(?) nations who offered to aid in this cleanup, shortly after it took place, by sending massive skimmer ships, turned down? When, in fact, those skimmers could have dramatically reduced, and continued to keep this slick from growing to the size it has, someone in charge has a lot of explaining to do. To refuse or deny this aid from other countries is unconscionable!


@ parmnparsley - As far as cleaning up the oil that hits the shore and wetlands, there are very few good options. Skimming techniques that work close to shore will not be effective at cleaning the oil off of everything that it touches. They can only separate the oil from the water.

Some of the skimming techniques being used are absorbent skimming pads, drum skimmers, and sump vacuums. Probably the most effective for oil that is at the coastline are drum skimmers. They work by having a floating drum rotate in the water. This slowly rotating drum has oil stick to it, which is then wiped off by a squeegee the length of the drum.

The oil that is wiped off the drum is collected in a tray where it is sucked up by a sump pump. The oil is then put into containment equipment and transported to be processed or disposed of. These drums can operate in very low water levels, are fairly maneuverable, and they do not suck up much water.

As for getting the oil off of the marshland grasses, there are really two viable options, and neither is very good. One is to fertilize the water with the hopes that the natural microbes that digest petroleum can multiply and eat the oil. The other is to perform controlled burns in the wetlands. Both techniques have the potential to harm the ecosystem, but they are the lesser evils.

Technology for dealing with oil spills in ecologically important zones is still primitive at best, so we will have to wait and see if the cleanup efforts will work. The Exxon Valdez spill happened in 1989, and oil still occasionally washes ashore. The BP spill is already ten times the size of Exxon Valdez, and the gulf coast is more ecologically fragile.


@ parmnparsley - I agree that the spill is ridiculous, and that 100 skimmers are not enough to contain a meaningful portion of this spill. I read an article in the Augusta Gazette that outlined the skimming and boom laying operation by one of the contractors hired by BP. The individual contractors working on the clean-up are trying their best, but there aren’t nearly enough contractors to prevent potentially irreversible damage to the gulf ecosystem.

Basically, skimmers that are used in deep water can only pick up a total of 90,000 gallons of fluid on their boat, and once oil is separated from the water, they can haul 60,000 gallons of crude back to shore. These skimmers only pick up 10%-30% oil concentration in each pass. The rest is water that has to be processed out on the ship.

The company also stated that since the oil is so spread out, they are only getting about 10% oil concentration with their oil skimmers right now. This company has 9 skimmers that have all been deployed, so this should give you a good idea of how much oil open sea skimmers can pick up.

When you think about 60,000 gallons, it seems like a lot, but in the context of a spill that has already dumped 113 million gallons as of day 58, this amount barely measures. By the way, according to US government estimates, this spill has become the third biggest spill in world history. Even if you use the most conservative estimates, this is still the ninth largest oil spill in world history and it is hard charging up the rankings.


The oil spill in the gulf is one of the saddest things in the news this decade. I read an article about oil skimming equipment being used to clean up the spill, but It did not go into detail about what kind of skimmers were being used, and how much oil they could pick up. Does anybody know what type of skimmers they are using in the gulf, and how much oil they can expect to clean up with these? How does BP expect to clean up oil in the areas around the coast? It certainly doesn’t seem like the skimmers they are using will be able to clean oil that is pushed into mangrove forests and marshland grasses.

The article stated that there were only about 100 skimmers working the spill, but the spill was already the size of New York and New Jersey. It seems like only deploying 100 skimmers is more of a PR stunt than an effort by BP to actually clean any oil up. That's like only having 100 police officers peppered throughout New York and New Jersey, and trying to keep crime under control.

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    • Oil floating on water.
      By: Focusedone
      Oil floating on water.
    • Oil skimmers may be used to remove oil that is floating on the surface of a liquid.
      Oil skimmers may be used to remove oil that is floating on the surface of a liquid.