New ‘sponge’ could revolutionise oil spill cleanup

The modified foam can reportedly absorb up to 90 times its own weight in oil before being squeezed out and reused

New ‘sponge’ could revolutionise oil spill cleanup

File photo, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico, 21-04-2010. Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

US scientists have created a new material that could have huge implications for the clean-up of oil spill disaster sites.

The modified foam can absorb up to 90 times its own weight in spilled oil before being squeezed out like a sponge and repeatedly reused, according to New Scientist.

The sponge is made by coating polyurethane foam with “oil-loving” silane molecules that attract oil but not water.

Other oil spill sponges are already on the market – however they can generally only be used once before being discarded and often incinerated.

The new material, created at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, could potentially allow for both the sorbent and the oil to be reused. 

Disasters in recent years on the scale of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have highlighted the devastating effects uncontrolled oil spills have on the environment.

Clean-up techniques like skimming, burning, and dispersing oil are only partially effective - and carry their own ecological impacts.

In order to test whether their new material could be used on large-scale spills in marine waters the Argonne researchers performed a test at the US National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey.

The material’s co-inventor, scientist Seth Darling said the test involved manufacturing an array of square pads made from the sponge and suspending them over a special pool made for practising emergency responses to oil spills.

The sponges were dragged behind a pipe spewing crude oil before being put through a wringer and used again.

“Our treated foams did way better than either the untreated foam that we brought or the commercial sorbent,” Mr Darling told New Scientist.

He said the team is as yet unsure how well the material will perform under the high pressures of the deep sea – however it could be used for coastline spills where clean-up is notoriously difficult.

“In an ideal world, you would have warehoused collections of this foam sitting near wherever there are offshore operations… or where there’s a lot of shipping traffic, or right on rigs… ready to go when the spill happens,” said Mr Darling.

Argonne has dubbed the new material the "Oleo Sponge."