Researchers at Argonne National Lab have developed a ‘sponge’ material that can absorb up to 90 times its weight in oil and can be reused up to 100 times. The researchers hope their tech can be used to clean up oil spills more quickly and cheaply.
Oil spills are very tricky to clean up. There are a number of tools that cleanup crews can use to separate oil and water, but all are slow or expensive or both. One of the best ways to clean up spills is to use a floating absorbent material, called a sorbent boom, that soaks up oil. Depending on the material, sorbent booms can absorb anywhere between 3 and 70 times their weight in oil.
However, the main weakness of sorbent booms is that they can only be used once. As soon as they absorb enough oil they have to be removed from the water and disposed of elsewhere. This means that enormous quantities of sorbent material are required for very large spills.
The new ‘sponge’ material from Argonne National Lab is not only more absorbent than other materials, it also has the ability to be reused. In tests, the ‘oil sponge’ could absorb 90 times its weight in oil before being wrung out and ready to use again. Such a material could drastically lower cleanup costs for future oil spills.
The sponge is made of a polyurethane foam coated in silane, which attracts oil. The ratio of the polyurethane to silane has to be precise: too little silane and the sponge won’t absorb the oil, too much and the sponge can’t be reused. Getting this ratio right is the trickiest part of the process. This delicate balance may make the sponge unusable in the open ocean, but it still holds promise in calmer coastal areas.
The team is currently working on additional tests and refining the manufacturing process for large-scale production. With any luck, this super-absorbent sponge will be ready for the next big oil spill.
Source and video credit: New Scientist
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.