Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago may have made a breakthrough in oil spill clean ups, with the development of a reusable sponge that can soak up oil from on and below the water’s surface.

The Oleo Sponge is a new type of foam that can not only soak up oil that has dispersed throughout a water column, but can be wrung out to allow reuse of both the material and the recovered oil.

Born out of the University of Chicago’s work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, Argonne is a multidisciplinary science and engineering research centre, with a goal of seeking solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. It ties into Chicago’s growing reputation as a leader of innovative environmental initiatives, leveraging its Chicago-area location amongst a high concentration of top-tier scientific research organisations, from high-energy physics and materials science to biology and advanced computer science. It is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The research was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement following difficulties encountered during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill clean up.

The team modified common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation, using a process called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS) to help it discriminate between oil and water. Oleophilic (oil-loving) molecules were stuck onto a thin ‘primer’ layer of metal oxide inside the foam. In seawater tank tests, the Oleo Sponge managed to adsorb diesel and crude oil 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 oil to be recovered.

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

The team says the Oleo Sponge could also be used to remove diesel and oil that builds up in ports and harbours from regular use. Attaching other molecules to the primer in the sponge could also allow it to single out other materials that need to be removed from water.

Jeff Elam, co-author of the study, added: “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.”

The team is further developing the Oleo Sponge, and looking into how the system can be commercialised.

(via Argonne National Laboratory, New Atlas)

Featured image: The Oleo Sponge can be wrung out and reused, and the oil it collects can be recovered (Credit:Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory)