Emulsions are blends of liquids that normally do not like to mix, like oil and water, and the researchers' custom-made molecule acts as an emulsifier that can bring those incompatible liquids together.
But because the new molecule responds to magnetic fields, it could be put to use in cleaning up oil spills, the scientists said.
"We're making emulsions from essentially seawater and the kind of oils that would be spilled, and we're seeing that we can manipulate them using a magnetic field," Julian Eastoe of the University of Bristol told BBC News, calling it "a practical application without a shadow of a doubt."
The molecules created by the researchers are based on metal atoms, which respond to magnetic fields.
Even in small amounts the magnetic molecules create emulsions and could be easily implemented into current industrial or cleanup applications, the researchers said.