Introduction: TarBallTrap - How to Clean Up an Oil Spill (Part II)

What's the worst thing you can imagine happening to something you love? For the crew of R/V Magnet, who love the ocean for more reasons than we can count, one of the worst things we can imagine is dumping 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay and letting it spread out. We don't need to sit around imagining it, because on Wednesday morning the container vessel Cosco Busan made a major navigational blunder, ran into a piling (W-4) of the Bay Bridge, and emptied the contents of two of it's fuel tanks into the Bay.

The TarBallTrap is the second in a series of low cost oil spill cleanup devices we're working on. While authorities have discouraged Bay Area citizens from cleaning up oil on their own, Magnet discourages authorities from interfering with Bay Area citizens engaged in the stewardship of their watershed. Done safely, using the TarBallTrap is no more dangerous than putting gas in your lawn mower. Honestly, it's probably safer.

If you'd like to cleanup tar balls in an oil spill, but need a simpler device, check out our SlickSack, also on instructables. That thing takes less than ten minutes and you're up and running.

Step 1: A Peak at the Whiteboard Session.

On Magnet, we do our whiteboarding on the overhead - which is what you call the ceiling on a boat if you're trying to confuse people who don't spend a lot of time on boats. We included a picture of the whiteboard, as that's as close to plans as we come for a project like this.

The TarBallTrap is designed to meet the needs of normal people, outraged at the site of sticky glops of bunker fuel floating around in their watershed. Our goal was to develop something that could be either built at low cost in low volume, or engineered for high volume manufacture for distribution in coastal areas. We like the idea that it can be carried around on the dock to clean up different slips. We think it won't be hard to carry on beaches either. We'll try that soon.

We think of TarBallTrap1 as a two stage buoyancy filter - which is to say, it traps things that float. If it doesn't get them the first time, it tries again. The sketch of TBT1 is a section view of a 5 gallon bucket with a 2 quart bucket inside.

Step 2: Drill and Plumb the Second Stage Filter.

Drill a hole in the bottom of your second stage that will fit the plumbing fitting you're using. Our hunch is that all the plumbing we used is too small, and using bigger plumbing would give higher flow rates. So go big. Or wait until we go big, and we'll let you know how it turns out.

Then build up the second stage filter. The pictures speak for themselves on this one.

Step 3: Mount Your Second Stage Filter (the Little One) in Your First Stage Filter (the Big One).

The second stage is attached to the first stage at two points. The top is a bolt. The bottom is the outflow fitting.

What you don't see in this picture is the tube that feeds into the bottom of the clear little container in the middle. We didn't take a it's picture. Nothing personal, just working quickly. It's a tube that leads down close to, but not touching, the bottom of the orange bucket. Sorry about that. There we thought we were taking so many pictures.

Step 4: Do the Lid.

Take a nice big hole saw and drop a hole in the lid. Lovely.

Step 5: Filter!!

Find some bunker fuel floating around and scoop it up. If you need some, you can bring your filter to the Bay area. We still have 46,000 gallons you can practice on.

Dump contaminated water in the top...and watch nice clean water come out the side.

The filter is capable of collecting about four gallons of floating, oily waste. Then you put the cap on it and drop it off at the San Francisco Household Hazerdous Waste Facility. You can learn more about them at

There you have it! There are lots of clever ways to clean up oil spill. We've heard stories about people using screen doors and all kinds of things. Heck, we even had pretty good luck using a fish net. The trick is, what do you do with an oil covered screen door? At the end of the day, all we want is a cheap, portable device that will cleanly capture large, sticky, oily waste and safely contain it for proper disposal.

Why not build one up, come on out to the Bay Area, and see if you can't catch a little oil?!! We'll be right there with you.

Crew of R/V Magnet