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Oleo Sponge Can Soak Up 90 Times Its Own Weight In Spilled Oil

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Any middle school scientist student can tell you oil and water don't mix. But when it's oil spills and ocean waters, there are a number of reasons the two can not—and should not—ever meet. But before you get too sad about marine life in peril, a material has been developed that can clean up spilled oil way, way better than ever.

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Why we're covering this:

  • It makes us feel hopeful that oil spills won't always be such detrimental messes
  • This innovative stuff solves for major problems involved in the way we clean up oil spills
Argonne postdoctoral researcher Ed Barry wrings out a sheet of Oleo Sponge during tests at Argonne.
Argonne scientists tested the material in saltwater at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey. Tests showed that Oleo Sponge successfully collected both crude oil and diesel from the water column.

Spongebob Oilpants

You probably remember the catastrophic BP oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, when over 130 million gallons of crude oil infiltrated the area. It's considered the worst oil spill in US history. Part of what makes oil spills so bad is the fact that they're really hard to clean up. But scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory invented Oleo Sponge, a material that almost seems too good to be true in terms of oily cleanup. This material, described in a study in Journal of Materials Chemistry A published in January of 2017, can absorb 90 times its own weight of spilled oil. When it's all soaked up, just squeeze it out and reuse the stuff hundreds of times.

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A few different factors make Oleo Sponge different from traditional methods of oil spill cleanup. For one, it can soak up oil that has dispersed into the water column, not just the slick stuff sitting on the surface. (The underwater oil was the bigger issue in the BP spill, for reference.) The sponge is also durable enough to be used and reused hundreds of times, whereas other methods are only good for one-time use. Once you squeeze Oleo out, too, the oil is totally recoverable. How does this miracle material do it? The Argonne scientists took a common polyurethane foam full of English muffin-esque nooks and crannies, and gave it a new surface chemistry laced with oil-loving molecules. Near the interior surfaces of the sponge is a sort of glue that holds the oil once the oil-loving molecules suck it up from the water. Voilà!

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Oleo Sponge can be wrung out, the oil collected, and the material reused—it has stood up to dozens of cycles without breaking down.

One Little Sponge, Many Applications

Things are looking good for Oleo Sponge—in tests at a giant seawater tank, it successfully absorbed diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface. The material could also be regular tool for harbor and port cleanup, where diesel and oil can build up from ship traffic, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne's Technology Development and Commercialization division. But why stop there?! "The technique offers enormous flexibility, and can be adapted to other types of cleanup besides oil in seawater. You could attach a different molecule to grab any specific substance you need," said Argonne chemist Jeff Elam. We don't want to call this stuff a miracle material, but the future is lookin' pretty clean.

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