A group of researchers from the United States Energy Department at the Argonne National Laboratory has created a new reusable material that can absorb up to 90 times its weight in oil. This translates into a great new way to fight against oil spills since this mechanism seems very promising.

After the latest oil spill, scientists were forced to consider a brand new way of fighting against this issue. The Deep Blue Horizon spill was so massive concerning the amount of oil thrown in the sea that researchers discovered a new prejudicial factor: there is a lot of oil that does not lie beneath the surface of the sea, which makes the spill harder to clean through removal or burning mechanisms.

Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory Youtube Channel

The more common and commercial products used in this cases are called “sorbents,” and they generally function just one time. These sorbents act like a regular paper towel that is used to mop a kitchen floor, and that it’s usually thrown away afterward. Authorities ultimately incinerate all the sorbents used during a spill, and the oil contained in it.

Given the fact that this mechanism is both expensive and not eco-friendly, researchers started to work in new ways to fight oil spills, as they put as a challenge to find a reusable cleaning method. According to the official statement by the Department of Energy, the new material created can do both things: be used several times and recollect massive amounts of oil.

What exactly is this new material? 

According to the research team, this new material consists of an oil sponge that is composed of polyurethane or polyimide plastics and coated with “oil-loving” silane molecules. This composition is what produces a material that is so great at absorbing vast quantities of oil. If the sponge presented low levels of chemical attraction, it would make harder for the sponge to absorb the oil, as an exaggerated chemical attraction would not allow the release of the oil afterward.

After performing several laboratory tests, the team realized that if they added particular amounts of silane in the engineering process, the result was a material capable of absorbing and releasing easily significant quantities of oil with no major changes in capacity.

However, for the investigation team be sure about the actual capacity of the material, they had to conduct large-scale tests. These tests were the only ones that can determine if this new material would work when used in large spills like the Deep Blue Horizon one.

Experimentation: Oil spill recreation

The research team made a six square-meter long object using just square pads of the sponge material. Afterward, the team suspended the object into a pool especially design for the testing of mechanisms to be used during an oil spill, by throwing it directly from a bridge above the pool.

Later, the team dragged the sponges behind a pipe spewing crude oil to define the actual capacity for the material to release the previously absorbed oil. Then, the investigators sent the sponges through a wringer that is used to remove all the remaining oil, for finally repeat the process several times until the tests were complete.

These tests have not been officially published. However, the specialized website News Scientist reports that all the experimentation was conducted at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey, in December of last year.

“We made a lot of the foam, and then these pieces of foam were placed inside mesh bags – basically laundry bags, with sewn channels to house the foam,” the research team leader and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy, Seth Darling, said in an interview this Monday. “Our treated foams did way better than either the untreated foam that we brought or the commercial sorbent.”

One of the things that are not quite clear for the investigation team is that they don’t know if this material will behave correctly when working under the pressure of the deep sea conditions. However, even when this sponge does not function correctly in deep sea spills, it can be used in shores contaminated by oil spills. Near-shore areas are usually the most difficult place to conduct cleaning mechanism after an oil spill.

According to Vijay John at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, this new material created is an advance regarding oil spill cleaning mechanisms, as they will be extremely useful “in cleaning small spills and spills close to coastlines where dispersants cannot be used easily.”

“In an ideal world, you would have warehoused collections of this foam sitting near wherever there are offshore operation, or where there’s a lot of shipping traffic, or right on right, ready to go when the spill happens,” Darling says when giving the respective recommendations regarding the use of the material.

Source: New Scientist