Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that can be used to clean up an oil spill and diesel spills in water. The material not only quickly adsorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface. The result is Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water. The material can be wrung out to be reused—and the oil itself recovered.
“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.
The scientists started out with common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation. This foam has lots of nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, which could provide ample surface area to grab oil. They used a nanotechnology technique previously developed at Argonne to infuse a hard layer of “primer” into the foam. This gave the foam a new surface chemistry, so they could firmly attach a second layer of molecules that grab oil.
At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the 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,” Darling said.
Oleo Sponge could potentially also be used routinely to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic.
The team is actively looking to commercialize the material; those interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development may contact email@example.com.
The research was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The team used resources of the Center for Nanoscale Materials, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility, in the development of the material. To learn more, visit [www.anl.gov/articles/argonne-invents-reusable-sponge-soaks-oil-could-revolutionize-oil-spill-and-diesel-cleanup].