Oleo Sponge absorbiendo petróleo durante un test en Argonne. Fotografía, Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

The sponge able to actually clean up oil spills in the sea

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, able not only to easily absorbs oil from the surface of water, but from the entire water column. It is called Oleo Sponge.
Oleo Sponge can be wrung out to be re-used and the oil captured recovered this way.

At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

Tanque de agua salada en Ohmsett, las instalaciones Estatales para probar las tecnologías y materiales contra vertidos de petróleo y para energías renovables. Oleo Sponge ha sido testada en estas instalaciones con éxito. Fotografía, Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory.
Argonne scientists tested the material’s performance in saltwater at Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, a massive outdoor seawater tank in New Jersey for testing cleanup technology. Tests showed that Oleo Sponge did successfully collect both crude oil and diesel from the water column. Photo by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

The research team, which is composed by the head researcher Seth Darling, and Argonne scientists Anil Mane, Joseph Libera and postdoctoral researcher Edward Barry who have also contributed to the development of the Oleo Sponge, is now actively looking to commercialize the material, Harvey said; those interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development may contact partners@anl.gov.

Thanks to nano-tech

The scientists started out with common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation. This foam has lots of nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, which could provide ample surface area to grab oil; but they needed to give the foam a new surface chemistry in order to firmly attach the oil-loving molecules.

Previously, Darling and fellow Argonne chemist Jeff Elam had developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis, or SIS, which can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures.

After some trial and error, they found a way to adapt the technique to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide “primer” near the foam’s interior surfaces. This serves as the perfect glue for attaching the oil-loving molecules, which are deposited in a second step; they hold onto the metal oxide layer with one end and reach out to grab oil molecules with the other.

The result is Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water. The material, which looks a bit like an outdoor seat cushion.

Suitable for ordinary clean up at ports and harbors

Oleo Sponge could potentially be used routinely to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization division.

El investigador Ed Barry limpia una hoja de Oleo Sponge durante los tests en Argonne. Fotografía Mark Lopez/Argonne.
Argonne postdoctoral researcher Ed Barry wrings out a sheet of Oleo Sponge during tests at Argonne. Photo by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

Elam, Darling and the rest of the team are continuing to develop the technology.
“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,” Elam said.

“The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all,” Darling said.

“The Oleo Sponge offers a set of possibilities that, as far as we know, are unprecedented,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and a fellow of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Image over the headline.- Oleo Sponge picks up oil during tests at Argonne. Photo by Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

Related external links:

Oleo Sponge in action (video)

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