Oil spills are catastrophic events, wreaking havoc on the environment and putting marine ecosystems in peril by killing plants and animals at every step in the food chain. Even animals lucky enough to survive being smothered by oil can have long-lasting health effects, and some habitats may never fully recover.
It goes without saying that oil spill clean-up efforts are of emergency level importance, and require round-the-clock recovery efforts by professionals. Luckily for them, they just got a new tool to use in their artillery against these man-made disasters.
Ok, it’s not just a sponge. It is a new product called Oleo Sponge, created by scientists at the US Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, in response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010 — where recovery was restricted to oil that had risen to the surface, and less successful in grabbing the millions of gallons of oil spewing near the sea floor and getting caught in currents that kept the oil beneath the surface.
Oleo Sponge is, hopefully, an answer to that problem if ever arises again.
The scientists used a common foam — the same type found in furniture cushions or home insulation, and some other smarty-pants techniques like sequential infiltration synthesis (which I won’t go into detail here, but if you want read about that amazing science please follow this link where smarter guys than I will break it all down).
In layman’s terms: They developed a sponge that can grab and hold onto oil whether it’s on the surface or underwater. When they remove it from the water, the sponge, which resembles a bulky car floor mat, is run through a ringer to squeeze out the oil. The oil can be reused afterward, as can the sponge. Recycling level 10.
“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 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.
Emergency clean-up isn’t all the Oleo Sponge is slated to do. It can also help clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil accumulate from ship traffic.
While we hope there will never be another disaster like Deepwater, at least we are now that much more equipped to handle it.