Oil industry cleans up

Foam called Oleo Sponge pulls dispersed oil from water column and surface
This article appeared in March, 2017


Thankfully, catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster are relatively rare events. When they do happen, however, there is an enormous price to be paid; often, sadly, in terms of lives lost and lasting damage to the natural environment. So anytime the industry can move to mitigate against an inherently risky business should be regarded as a welcome opportunity. Such an opportunity was recently announced.

Charged with answering 'how to obtain affordable clean energy [whilst] protecting ourselves and our environment', scientists at the US Department of Energy (Argonne National Laboratory), have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that not only easily absorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column not just the surface.

Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water, looks a bit like an outdoor seat cushion and can be wrung out to be reused and the oil itself recovered. During tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey (National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility) the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

“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,” 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.

“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,” Argonne chemist Jeff Elam added.

The team is actively looking to commercialize the material, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization division. Interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development? 

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