Argonne scientists invent oil-absorbing foam to clean big spills

The sponge can absorb up to 90 times its own weight in oil.

The research team at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States said the sponge can soak up over 90 times its weight in oil and petroleum products and can be wrung out after use to be used again. This established means of addressing oil spills is not always effective.

"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. To make it suitable for grabbing oil it needed modifications to its surface chemistry so that it could attach to molecules of oil. Here the foam can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column, not simply from the surface. We learned that deep water oil drilling required far more fail-safes than were being used and we also realized that deep water oil spills are far more complex than previous surface spills and leaks. Long story short, this layer attracts molecules that bind to both oil and the sponge at the same time. Oleophilic (oil-loving) molecules were then stuck onto that layer, which allows the sponge to prefer oil over water.

Federal researchers have created a new tool to clean up oil spills by tinkering with the kind of foam found in seat cushions.

A test in a large pool specially designed for practising emergency responses to oil spills has so far proved that the treated foams are more successful than other methods and that the material could be used for spills near shores, where clean-up is particularly hard. Better yet, it can be wrung out afterwards, allowing the material to be reused, and the oil to be recovered.

"The material is extremely sturdy". The material called the Oleo Sponge can be wrung out and the collected oil can be recovered.

Oleo Sponge could potentially also 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. "You could attach a different molecule to grab any specific substance you need", Elam said.

  • Carolyn Briggs