Tag Archives: oil spill

Reusable ‘sponge’ for soaking up marine oil spills—even in northern waters

A May 28, 2024 news item on phys.org announces some new research into sponges, a topic of some interest where oil spill cleanups are concerned,

Oil spills, if not cleaned up quickly and effectively, can cause lasting damage to marine and coastal environments. That’s why a team of North American researchers are developing a new sponge-like material that is not only effective at grabbing and holding oil on its surface (adsorption), but can be reused again and again—even in icy Canadian waters….

A May 27, 2024 Canadian Light Source (CLS) news release (also received via email) by Rowan Hollinger provides some details, Note: CNF can be cellulose nanofibers, cellulose nanofibrils, or, it’s sometimes called, nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) (see Nanocellulose Wikipedia entry),,

The special material – called CNF-SP aerogel — combines a biodegradable cellulose-based material with a substance called spiropyran, a light-sensitive material. Spiropyran has a unique ‘switchable’ property that allows the aerogel to go between being oil-sorbent and oil-repellent, just like a kitchen sponge that can be used to soak up and squeeze out water.

“Once spiropyran has been added to the aerogel, after each usage we just switch the light condition,” explains Dr. Baiyu Helen Zhang, professor and Canada Research Chair at Memorial University, Newfoundland. “We used the aerogel as an oil sorbent under visible light. After oil adsorption, we switched the light condition to UV light. This switch helped the sponge to release the oil.”

And the material continues soaking up and releasing oil, even when the water temperature drops, according to Dr. Xiujuan Chen, an assistant professor at University of Texas – Arlington.

“We found that when we tested the oil sorbent’s performance under different kinds of environmental conditions, it had a very good performance in a cold environment. This is quite useful for cold winter seasons, particularly for Canada.”

The researchers used the CLS’s Mid-IR beamline to examine the characteristics of the aerogel before and after exposing it to visible and UV light. From here, the researchers are looking to scale up their research with large pilot studies and even testing the material in the field.

“The CLS has very unique infrastructure that supports students and researchers like us to conduct many kinds of very exciting research and to contribute to scientific knowledge and engineering applications,” says Zhang.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Development of a spiropyran-assisted cellulose aerogel with switchable wettability as oil sorbent for oil spill cleanup by Hongjie Wang, Xiujuan Chen, Bing Chen, Yuming Zhao, Baiyu Zhang. Science of The Total Environment Volume 923, 1 May 2024, 171451 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2024.171451 Available online: 2 March 2024 Version of Record: 8 March 2024

This paper is behind a paywall.

The CLS has made this video of the researchers available,

For the curious, I have many posts about sponges and, in particular, sponges for use in environmental cleanups.

Would you like to invest in the Argonne National Laboratory’s reusable oil spill sponge?

A March 7, 2017 news item on phys.org describes some of the US Argonne National Laboratory’s research into oil spill cleanup technology,

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling pipe blew out seven years ago, beginning the worst oil spill [BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico] in U.S. history, those in charge of the recovery discovered a new wrinkle: the millions of gallons of oil bubbling from the sea floor weren’t all collecting on the surface where it could be skimmed or burned. Some of it was forming a plume and drifting through the ocean under the surface.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that addresses this problem. The material not only easily adsorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.

A March 6, 2017 Argonne National Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, provides more information about the work,

“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.

We already have a library of molecules that can grab oil, but the problem is how to get them into a useful structure and bind them there permanently.

The scientists started out with common polyurethane foam, used in everything from furniture cushions to home insulation. This foam has lots of nooks and crannies, like an English muffin, which could provide ample surface area to grab oil; but they needed to give the foam a new surface chemistry in order to firmly attach the oil-loving molecules.

Previously, Darling and fellow Argonne chemist Jeff Elam had developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis, or SIS, which can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures.

After some trial and error, they found a way to adapt the technique to grow an extremely thin layer of metal oxide “primer” near the foam’s interior surfaces. This serves as the perfect glue for attaching the oil-loving molecules, which are deposited in a second step; they hold onto the metal oxide layer with one end and reach out to grab oil molecules with the other.

The result is Oleo Sponge, a block of foam that easily adsorbs oil from the water. The material, which looks a bit like an outdoor seat cushion, can be wrung out to be reused—and the oil itself recovered.

Oleo Sponge

At tests at a giant seawater tank in New Jersey called Ohmsett, the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility, the Oleo Sponge successfully collected diesel and crude oil from both below and on the water surface.

“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.

Oleo Sponge could potentially also be used routinely to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic, said John Harvey, a business development executive with Argonne’s Technology Development and Commercialization division.

Elam, Darling and the rest of the team are continuing to develop the technology.

“The technique offers enormous flexibility, and can be adapted to other types of cleanup besides oil in seawater. You could attach a different molecule to grab any specific substance you need,” Elam said.

The team is actively looking to commercialize [emphasis mine] the material, Harvey said; those interested in licensing the technology or collaborating with the laboratory on further development may contact partners@anl.gov.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Advanced oil sorbents using sequential infiltration synthesis by Edward Barry, Anil U. Mane, Joseph A. Libera, Jeffrey W. Elam, and Seth B. Darling. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2017,5, 2929-2935 DOI: 10.1039/C6TA09014A First published online 11 Jan 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

The two most recent posts here featuring oil spill technology are my Nov. 3, 2016 piece titled: Oil spill cleanup nanotechnology-enabled solution from A*STAR and my Sept. 15, 2016 piece titled: Canada’s Ingenuity Lab receives a $1.7M grant to develop oil recovery system for oil spills. I hope that one of these days someone manages to commercialize at least one of the new oil spill technologies. It seems that there hasn’t been much progress since the BP (Deepwater Horizon) oil spill. If someone has better information than I do about the current state of oil spill cleanup technologies, please do leave a comment.

Nano, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and some more about oil

Striking resemblance isn’t there? I gather this was found by accident as scientists were examining oil shale under a scanning electron microscope (SEM) manufactured by JEOL USA. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The clear details shown in the picture (micrograph) from the SEM is due to not only the optics of the microscope, but the way in which the sample was prepared and precisely cross sectioned from a larger chunk of shale through the use of a special ion-beam cross section polisher. This tool has become indispensable for oil shale analysis.

One of today’s hottest areas of potential under-utilized energy resources is shale. Abundant in specific regions of the United States, oil shale is a fine-grained, sedimentary rock composed of flakes of clay minerals and tiny fragments of other minerals, especially quartz and calcite. Shale also has a complex network of soft veins of an organic substance, kerogen and accessory opaque minerals such as pyrite.

When heated, kerogen can release hydrocarbons, or fossil fuel. By studying the internal composition of the shale and the network of kerogen filled veins, scientists can determine the abundance and ease of extraction of oil.

It seems timely to discuss alternative methods of accessing oil in light of the situation in the Gulf of Mexico and the leak. As for BP, the company at the centre of the controversy, its logo, in the day and age of branding, is under assault as Suzanne Labarre in her article (BP Logo Gets Oily, Gruesome Redesigns Courtesy of Greenpeace Followers) on Fast Company notes,

Greenpeace asks you, gentle public, to redesign BP’s logo to more aptly convey its dirty ways. Skulls and crossbones welcome.

You’ve seen BP’s green-and-yellow sunburst logo, right? Seems completely out of place now that the defining image of the company is a dark blob spreading across the Gulf. With that in mind, Greenpeace has put up the Bat-Signal for a fresh logo that better conveys the oil company’s miraculous ability to ruin the world.

Here’s one sample logo (there are more at Fast Company),

An alternate BP logo