Oil spill glows under UV light


Maybe there's something for hippies to love about ecological disaster, after all. Chris Combs, photography editor at National Geographic News, took these amazing shots while on assignment in the Gulf of Mexico. Via Submitterator, he says:

...researcher Ping Wang pointed me towards his grad student's work with UV light. Turns out that the oil glows bright, head-shop fluorescent orange under UV light. Rip Kirby's ultra-powerful $1800 "Klingon Death Ray" ultraviolet spotlight lit up every particle of oil-stained sand, even in seemingly clean areas, and our footprints showed up Day-Glo orange.

This isn't just for "woah, dude" value. Applying UV light to contaminated beaches is also a clever way to spot—and clean up—oil that might otherwise go unnoticed by notoriously flimsy human eyes. You can read more—and see more pictures—in Combs' photo essay.


  1. This phenomenon is well known, and was used back in the day to evaluate whether a well had struck oil. The cuttings of rock removed from the well are examined under UV light for fluorescence. If it glows, the well hit an oil reservoir.

  2. Yeah, I think the new part is using UV lights in the field rather than in the lab…

    (Thanks MKB!)

  3. Actually, UV light will show all sorts of natural fluorocarbons in sand purple. For example, some of the most pristine beaches in Hawaii, Northern California and the South Pacific show up overwhelming purple, so I’m not sure why this is surprising.

      1. If they’re confused orange and purple, they’ve spent waaaay too much time in the ‘head shop’.

        Sure looks purple to me

  4. Heck, the whole sea glows just by sailing through it! I discovered this in my first offshore sailboat race, peering off the sterm (back) of the boat – we had a 10′ glowing trail behind our boat! When the only visible lights around are the moon and your running lights, the glow effect is particularly bright. Some people talk about jumping out of the water and leaving behind glowing footprints in the dry sand. I’d imagine these critters glow under UV as well.

    More info:


  5. Is this natural for crude oil to fluoresce or is it a result of injected slick-buster detergents?

  6. I’ve been occasionally trying, without luck, to do some UV photography, but turns out that every single UV LED light that I’ve purchased ($20 or under) fails miserably at being “true” UV. I’ve had moderate success with fluorescent UV tubes, but would prefer LEDs.
    Anybody have suggestions for an affordable legitimate UV LED lamp (and please include wavelength, if you have it)? Oh, and $1800 is out of my budget range… ;)

    1. Try http://www.s-et.com/products.htm
      The bad news is it looks like prices range from about $50 to $300 in 1 to 10 quantities as the wavelength ranges from 355 down to 240 nm, but those are genuine UV wavelengths there.

      My understanding is that it’s very difficult to get materials that can stand up to intense UV, in both the source semiconductors and the packaging.

      And a lot of plastics used in inexpensive “UV” LEDs fluoresce, which can ruin the desired use for some applications.

      When the price comes down I want to try arraying some around the fruit and vegetable bins in my refrigerator with a circuit to turn them on for a few minutes each time the door is closed to see if it can retard spoilage. I suppose I could get a cheap germicidal lamp to see if it works.

  7. Does anyone have the link to the student work that’s (vaguely) cited here? I’m wondering if this is the same Ping Wang I studied under.

  8. The Vertek Division of Applied Research Associates has made some high output super efficient UV spotlights for detecting hydrocarbons (crude oil) on the beaches. They make tarballs and crude show up fluorescent yellowish/orange. Check them out at uvoil.com

    These lights are true UV and are built not to self destruct and also to survive the salt on the coast.

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