A new material created by Argonne National Laboratories in the US could revolutionise oil spill clean-ups, averting untold environmental damage. Called Oleo Sponge, the material is made of adapted polyurethane foam.
Oil-attracting molecules already existed, but scientists needed to figure out how to collect oil in a sustainable way – not just from the surface, but also when it becomes dispersed in a column throughout the sea. Co-inventor Seth Darling and his colleagues took everyday polyurethane foam, ordinarily used for upholstery and bedding, and transformed it using silane molecules to create a durable sponge that can be wrung out and reused.
Altering the surface chemistry of the sponge was made possible by sequential infiltration synthesis – a process previously developed by Darling and fellow Argonne chemist Jeff Elam. This process was developed to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures – but by adapting it, they were able to grow an ultra-thin layer of metal oxide inside the foam, which the oil molecules grab onto.
"In an ideal world, you would have warehoused collections of this foam sitting near offshore operations... or where there's a lot of shipping traffic, or right on rigs... ready to go when the spill happens," Darling told British publication New Scientist. With our oceans continuously at threat from such disasters, this innovation could be a game changer for the environment. For more innovations extracting pollutants from our surroundings, see our coverage of Dutch Design Week 2016 and our Materials Focus 2018/19 theme Sci-Bio.