Smart sponge could clean up oil spills

Researchers have developed a highly porous sponge that selectively soaks up oil and resists water. It could be used to inexpensively and efficiently clean up oil spills without harming marine life.

A Northwestern University-led team has developed a highly porous smart sponge that selectively soaks up oil in water, announced a statement. With an ability to absorb more than 30 times its weight in oil, the sponge could be used to inexpensively and efficiently clean up oil spills without harming marine life.

“Oil spills have devastating and immediate effects on the environment, human health and economy,” said Northwestern’s Vinayak Dravid, who led the research. “Although many spills are small and may not make the evening news, they are still profoundly invasive to the ecosystem and surrounding community. Our sponge can remediate these spills in a more economic, efficient and eco-friendly manner than any of the current state-of-the-art solutions.”

Oil spill clean-up is an expensive and complicated process that often harms marine life and further damages the environment. Currently used solutions include burning the oil, using chemical dispersants to breakdown oil into very small droplets, skimming oil floating on top of water and/or absorbing it with expensive, unrecyclable sorbents, explained the statement.

“Each approach has its own drawbacks and none are sustainable solutions,” Nandwana said. “Burning increases carbon emissions and dispersants are terribly harmful for marine wildlife. Skimmers don’t work in rough waters or with thin layers of oil. And sorbents are not only expensive, but they generate a huge amount of physical waste — similar to the diaper landfill issue.”

The Northwestern solution bypasses these challenges by selectively absorbing oil and leaving clean water and unaffected marine life behind. The secret lies in a nanocomposite coating of magnetic nanostructures and a carbon-based substrate that is oleophilic (attracts oil), hydrophobic (resists water) and magnetic.

The nanocomposite’s nanoporous 3D structure selectively interacts with and binds to the oil molecules, capturing and storing the oil until it is squeezed out. The magnetic nanostructures give the smart sponge two additional functionalities: controlled movement in the presence of an external magnetic field and desorption of adsorbed components, such as oil, in a simulated and remote manner.

The OHM (oleophilic hydrophobic magnetic) nanocomposite slurry can be used to coat any cheap, commercially available sponge. Vinayak and his team tested the OHM sponge with many different types of crude oils of varying density and viscosity. It consistently absorbed up to 30 times its weight in oil, leaving the water behind. To mimic natural waves, researchers put the OHM sponge on a shaker submerged in water. Even after vigorous shaking, the sponge release less than 1% of its absorbed oil back into the water.

Photo credit: Jenn Farr, flickr/Creative Commons

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