Researchers in Singapore have proposed a new technology for cleaning up oil spills, according to a June 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,
Large-scale oil spills, where hundreds of tons of petroleum products are accidentally released into the oceans, not only have devastating effects on the environment, but have significant socio-economic impact as well .
Current techniques of cleaning up oil spills are not very efficient and may even cause further pollution or damage to the environment. These methods, which include the use of toxic detergent-like compounds called dispersants or burning of the oil slick, result in incomplete removal of the oil. The oil molecules remain in the water over long periods and may even be spread over a larger area as they are carried by wind and waves. Further, burning can only be applied to fresh oil slicks of at least 3 millimeters thick, and this process would also cause secondary environmental pollution.
In a bid to improve the technology utilized by cleanup crews to manage and contain such large spills, researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR [located in Singapore] have invented a smart oil-scavenging material or supergelators that could help clean up oil spills efficiently and rapidly to prevent secondary pollution.
These supergelators are derived from highly soluble small organic molecules, which instantly self-assemble into nanofibers to form a 3D net that traps the oil molecules so that they can be removed easily from the surface of the water.
A June 17, 2016 IBN A*STAR media release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,
“Marine oil spills have a disastrous impact on the environment and marine life, and result in an enormous economic burden on society. Our rapid-acting supergelators offer an effective cleanup solution that can help to contain the severe environmental damage and impact of such incidents in the future,” said IBN Executive Director Professor Jackie Y. Ying.
Motivated by the urgent need for a more effective oil spill control solution, the IBN researchers developed new compounds that dissolve easily in environmentally friendly solvents and gel rapidly upon contact with oil. The supergelator molecules arrange themselves into a 3D network, entangling the oil molecules into clumps that can then be easily skimmed off the water’s surface.
“The most interesting and useful characteristic of our molecules is their ability to stack themselves on top of each other. These stacked columns allow our researchers to create and test different molecular constructions, while finding the best structure that will yield the desired properties,” said IBN Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist Dr Huaqiang Zeng. (Animation: Click to see how the supergelators stack themselves into columns.)
IBN’s supergelators have been tested on various types of weathered and unweathered crude oil in seawater, and have been found to be effective in solidifying all of them. The supergelators take only minutes to solidify the oil at room temperature for easy removal from water. In addition, tests carried out by the research team showed that the supergelator was not toxic to human cells, as well as zebrafish embryos and larvae. The researchers believe that these qualities would make the supergelators suitable for use in large oil spill areas.
The Institute is looking for industrial partners to further develop its technology for commercial use. [emphasis mine]
Video: Click to watch the supergelators in action
- The well documented BP Gulf of Mexico oil well accident in 2010 was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, with damages amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. Its wide-ranging effects on the marine ecosystem, as well as the fishing and tourism industries, can still be felt six years on.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Instant Room-Temperature Gelation of Crude Oil by Chiral Organogelators by Changliang Ren, Grace Hwee Boon Ng, Hong Wu, Kiat-Hwa Chan, Jie Shen, Cathleen Teh, Jackie Y. Ying, and Huaqiang Zeng. Chem. Mater., 2016, 28 (11), pp 4001–4008 DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemmater.6b01367 Publication Date (Web): May 10, 2016
Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society
This paper is behind a paywall.
I have featured other nanotechnology-enabled oil spill cleanup solutions here. One of the more recent pieces is my Dec. 7, 2015 post about boron nitride sponges. The search terms: ‘oil spill’ and ‘oil spill cleanup’ will help you unearth more.
There have been some promising possibilities and I hope one day these clean up technologies will be brought to market.