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Multipurpose polyurethane sponge to revolutionise oil spill cleanup

Multipurpose polyurethane sponge to revolutionise oil spill cleanup

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster over two decades ago, which saw almost 5 million barrels of oil flow into the Gulf of Mexico after a drill pipe burst, scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam that easily absorbs oil from water, is reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.

The base material of the new foam, called Oleo Sponge, is made up of a modified polyurethane component; it was subjected to a sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS) process, which allows the sponge to prefer oil over water. SIS can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures. In this case, Argonne scientists adapted the technique to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide ​“primer,” becoming the perfect glue to draw oil-loving molecules.

Multipurpose polyurethane sponge to revolutionise oil spill cleanup

In seawater tank tests, the Oleo Sponge managed to collect crude oil and diesel from the water, both on and below the surface. Better yet, it can be wrung out afterwards, allowing the material to be reused, and the precious oil to be recovered.

“The [Oleo Sponge] is extremely sturdy,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. “We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all.”

Scientists behind the invention envision Oleo Sponge could be used to remove diesel and oil that builds up in ports and harbours or modified to target other pollutants by tweaking the function of the primer in the sponge.

The scientists are also looking into how the system can be commercialised.

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