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Researchers Have Created A New Material That Can Absorb Oil More Effectively

Researchers at Argonne National Lab have synthesized a new material that can absorb oil up to 90 times its own weight.


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As time goes by, oil spills have gotten more and more common, causing severe amounts of damage to marine life and the economy. While we have found new and more cost-effective ways of detecting oil spills, our current means of cleaning them up are either expensive or inefficient. This has caused researchers from all over the globe to find other ways to clean up oil spills, and this year, we might have created our best tool yet. Scientists from Argonne National Lab have developed a new material that can soak up to 90 times its weight in oil.

Source: Argonne National Laboratory

This material is very similar to the usual sorbent – the stuff that we usually use to absorb oil spills. While these commercial sorbents are effective, they can only carry anything from 3 to 70 times its weight in oil, depending on which kind of material the sorbent is made out of.

This material is made up of polyurethane foam covered in silane, which attracts oil. To make sure it absorbs as much oil as it possibly could, the ratio of polyurethane to silane must be very precise. Too much of one and it fails to absorb all the oil; too little and it can’t be reused. And yes, this material can be reused- as soon as it absorbs the oil, you can just take it out of the water, squeeze out the oil (which can also be reused), and then toss it back in the water to absorb the rest of the oil. However, this is also its biggest disadvantage, due to the fact that a bigger oil spill equals a bigger amount of material needed to absorb it, and once it’s done, it has to be taken out of the water and squeezed out to be used again, which would be really heavy, and not to mention expensive if you need that much material (and to find a machine that’s strong enough to carry it).

Source: Argonne National Laboratory

The scientists tested their creation by synthesizing several of these polyurethane pads treated in silane, and placed them inside mesh bags. Then they dragged the pads inside a pool with an oil spewing pipe to simulate how an oil spill usually occurs. After that, they took back each pad, squeezed the oil out of them, and repeated the process. Once the experiment was over, they found that their silane-treated pads were a lot more effective than the untreated ones used by commercial sorbents.

Source: Youtube, New Scientist

While they have yet to test if this material could be used in open bodies of water, the results look promising, and the team is working on refining this technology to be effective on a much larger scale. Once the material has been improved, they can then put these fabrics near oil rigs and other off-shore locations, ready to be used in case of an emergency.

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