Scientists at Northwestern University have developed a new sponge that could potentially revolutionize oil spill clean-ups.The sponge is reusable, and according to the team behind it, and has the ability to soak up oil 30 times its weight. More importantly, this new technique promises to be an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional methods of dealing with oil spills. “Burning increases carbon emissions and dispersants are terribly harmful for marine wildlife. Skimmers don’t work in rough waters or with thin layers of oil. And sorbents are not only expensive, but they generate a huge amount of physical waste — similar to the diaper landfill issue,” stated research team member Vikas Nandwana.
Team leader Professor Vinaya Dravid said that this new technology could also be a great help in dealing with minor spills that escape attention: “Although many spills are small and may not make the evening news, they are still profoundly invasive to the ecosystem and surrounding community. Our sponge can remediate these spills in a more economic, efficient, and eco-friendly manner than any of the current state-of-the-art solutions.”
Northwestern’s method involves coating commercially available sponges with a nano-composite coating of ‘magnetic nanostructures and a carbon-based substrate’ that is oleophilic, hydrophobic, and magnetic. The porous structure of the nano-composite coating selectively captures oil molecules, and does not release oil back into the water. Its magnetic nature also allows for controlled movement using magnetic fields. The team has also tested their new nano-coating on oils of various types and say it will also work in diverse aquatic conditions.
While this nano-coating technology could definitely change how we deal with oil slicks, it also holds promise in dealing with pollution of other types as well as the coating can be modified to target different substances: Research team member Stephanie Ribet is looking at using this to extract nutrients from fertilizer runoff and other agriculture-linked pollution.