A group of researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory have developed a sponge that will collect oil from bodies of water, which could improve how harbors and ports are cleaned, as well as how oil spills are managed.
How an all-star team put an end to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill The Oleo Sponge is made of a polyurethane foam whose interior surfaces are covered with oleophilic molecules that draw oil out of water. The challenge, according to Argonne, was finding a way to “glue” those oil-loving molecules to the sponge’s interior. That issue was tackled with the help of 2011 research from Argonne scientists, who were able to infuse metal oxide with nanostructures. The Oleo creators used that technique to develop a primer for the interior of the sponge that the oleophilic molecules stick to. The result is a sponge that can adsorb up to 90 times its weight in oil.
After use, the sponge can be wrung out and the oil can even be reclaimed in some cases. Argonne says it’s actively looking to commercialize the material through licensing or collaboration agreements, and the sponge could be ready for real-world use in less than five years, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The sponge was tested extensively in a New Jersey saltwater research tank, where it was able to collect both diesel and crude oil from the tank, whether the oil was above or below the water’s surface.
Seth Darling, the sponge’s co-inventor and a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, said in a press release that “The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all.”
Oil spills are devastating for marine life and are often challenging to clean up. One of the most dramatic spills in recent history was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. As the WSJ points out, there are issues with many of our traditional methods of oil spill clean up. The spread of oil can be slowed with the help of floating barriers, and skimmers can remove oil from the top of the water, but removing oil from under the water’s surface can be trickier, sometimes requiring chemical dispersants. Absorbent materials can sponge up oil, but they must be thrown out after they’ve been saturated. An Oleo sponge, on the other hand, can be reused.
The research was funded by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and it was supported with resources from the Department of Energy.