A new material can work like a sponge in cleaning up massive oil spills.
Oil slicks have a huge impact on birds and marine life. Once birds fly into the oil, it covers their entire body. There's a huge chance that these birds will contract hypothermia, since the oil affects their ability to maintain body heat. Oil-covered sea otters can also contract hypothermia because they rely on the cleanliness of their coats to stay warm.
Think about what it's like to clean in your kitchen. Paper towels can soak up spilled liquids, but they can only be used once then thrown away. A sponge, however, is a different story. You can use it to mop up, wring it out, and use it again for future spills.
Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory applied the same basic principle to cleaning up large oil spills at sea. Presently, agencies clean oil from the sea with materials called “sorbents”. Sorbents function much like paper towels do. Cleanup crews can only use them once before throwing them into an incinerator, along with the oil they absorbed.
This, of course, is somewhat wasteful and harmful to the environment still. Also, the oil goes into the incinerator as well instead of being reused. Reusing the oil instead of getting rid of it is a much more efficient way to deal with an oil slick. Utilizing a reusable sponge is also an effective way to cut both costs and waste.
Seth Darling and his colleagues wanted to create something that is both reusable and able to save spilled oil. They came up with a sponge that consists of polyurethane or polyimide plastic foam.
Getting the silane molecule coating for the sponge just right was vital. The wrong formulation can make the sponge unable to neither absorb nor release oil. The team had to make sure that the sponge will be able to do both.
The team hit the sweet spot during their laboratory tests. They were able to create a sponge that can soak up and release oil repeatedly without structural damage. However, they needed to test the sponge in an actual oil spill to see how functional it was.
The team put the sponge to the test in an actual, albeit controlled, oil spill to see if it can absorb oil from water. They then wrung the oil out of the sponge and repeated the process over several days.
Luckily, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the experiment was a success and the sponges performed well. However, the sponge was tested in a controlled environment. The team was unsure of how the sponge would perform in an actual oil spill. They weren't yet able to test the sponge in the sea, where pressures are high. Of course, this doesn't mean that the sponges are useless until then. They can still perform well in cleaning spills close to the shore.
The team will work on figuring out how to produce more of these sponges to clean up more oil spills.
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