The best solution to clean up oil spills: a sponge

The test, conducted off the coast of California, had as objective to validate Oil Sponge in an environment that mimicked an oil spill is real. “This technology is important because, despite the greatest precautions of the industry, oil spills continue to occur, and the cleaning methods existing are surprisingly inadequate,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering Argonne.

He and a team of scientists began with polyurethane foam joint, of the type used on the cushions of the furniture. It had a wide surface area to collect oil spilled and mechanical properties useful, but it needed a new surface chemistry to attach firmly the molecules that absorb the oil.

Darling and his partner chemist of Argonne’s Jeff Elam developed a technique called synthesis of infiltration sequential, used to infuse metal oxides in polymeric materials, and finally found a way to adapt the technique to develop an extremely thin layer of “primer” of the metal oxide near the interior surfaces of the foam to bond strongly the molecules to capture the oil.

The result is Oil Sponge, that, prior to this ultimate test in open water, had already been examined in the laboratory and at Ohmsett, a tank of sea water at large scale used by businesses and government agencies to assess technologies for the response to the oil spill. The scientists of Argonne Anil Mane, Joseph Freed and Edward Barry, also contributed to the development of Oil Sponge, with Barry assisting in the experiment of California.

The cleaning method is simple: the sponge is dipped in water and then squeezed, the oil is collected in containers for possible reuse or safe disposal. After draining the oil, the Oil Sponge can be used again.

The researchers chose the field of filtration of Coal Oil Point in the Santa Barbara channel near Goleta, California, for his experiment. The location remains one of the areas largest and best studied of filtration marine active in the world. Located in depths of 20-80 meters, the leaks have been active for at least 500,000 years, and released approximately 40 tonnes of methane, 19 tonnes of other organic gases and more than 100 barrels of liquid petroleum every day.

The researchers of Argonne were particularly interested in whether the Oil Sponge reusable could remove the shine, an oil layer of surface of approximately a micron thick, which shines perpetually in the surface of the water.

Did a set of sponges for this purpose, despleg√°ndolas for use in a small fishing boat, such as those used to help with the cleanup efforts of emergency after a stroke. The sponge worked just as researchers had predicted: it was able to successfully remove the shine of the oil on the surface of the water without leaving visible traces.