There are many challenges to cleaning up oil spills. Consider the devastating Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. A portion of the millions of gallons of oil that escaped drifted through the ocean rather than rising to the surface. Because it did not rise to the top, the oil could not be remediated by the traditional methods of skimming or burning.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have invented a technology that solves this problem: a sponge that recovers oil and other petroleum products from bodies of water. Called the Oleo Sponge, it absorbs water under the surface and can soak up 90 times its weight in oil.
Beginning with polyurethane foam chosen for its absorbency, the researchers experimented with ways to give it a new surface chemistry in order to attach oleophilic or oil-absorbing molecules. Using a technique they originated called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS), they developed a product that draws the oil into the interior of the sponge, offering unmatched absorption.
In contrast to current technologies that require disposal of oil-saturated materials, the Oleo Sponge can be wrung out to recover the oil, and can be reused. This reduces waste resulting from the cleanup process and means that a relatively small amount of sponge material can be used to mitigate large spills. For more information, visit www.anl.gov.