With a new, loosey-goosey regulatory environment on its way, Exxon Mobil announced some major investments in the U.S. today. Thankfully, scientists have made a recent breakthrough that could help clean up the inevitable oil spills that are on the horizon.
Lead researcher Seth Darling and his team at Argonne National Laboratory have created a sponge that can soak up 90 times its own weight and be squeezed out for reuse. The most commonly used products for cleaning up oil spills are known as “sorbents” and can only be used once. Made of polyurethane or polyimide plastics and coated with silane molecules, Darling and co.’s sponge could be an incredible boost to cleaning up oil spills in record time.
New Scientist explains how the researchers determined their project’s viability for use in an oil spill:
The team made an array of square pads of the sponge material measuring around 6 square metres. “We made a lot of the foam, and then these pieces of foam were placed inside mesh bags – basically laundry bags, with sewn channels to house the foam,” Darling says.
The researchers suspended their sponge-filled bags from a bridge over a large pool specially designed for practicing emergency responses to oil spills.
They then dragged the sponges behind a pipe spewing crude oil to test the material’s capability to remove oil from the water. They next sent the sponges through a wringer to remove the oil and then repeated the process, carrying out many tests over multiple days.
Darling says that the new material “did way better than either the untreated foam that we brought or the commercial sorbent.” But the question of whether it can handle the pressures of the deep sea still remains to be answered.
If this new spin on the old sponge becomes standard, Darling hopes to 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.”