This Reusable Smart Sponge Can Clean up Oil Spills

This will go a long way in protecting marine life and shorelines.

Jun 11, 2020

Keeping our environment pristine, especially our waterways, is something everyone can agree on. That’s why people participate in beach cleanups and work so hard to remove plastic debris from our oceans.

But sometimes things come to pass that can undo all of these efforts. One of the worst things that can happen to our oceans is an oil spill where liquid petroleum is released. Cleaning up after a spill has always been a costly time-consuming process that often harms wildlife (like seabirds, as well as whales and dolphins whose blowholes can get clogged with oil) and further damages the marine environment. But now researchers at Northwestern University have developed a “smart sponge” designed to clean up oil spills in the ocean.

This new approach from the Evanston Illinois university’s research, which was published in the journal Industrial Engineering and Chemical Research, is designed to only absorb oil leaving the clean water behind without affecting marine wildlife according to a North Western news release. Previous methods included skimming oil off the surface, burning it, or using absorbents.

“Each approach has its own drawbacks and none are sustainable solutions,” Nandwana Vikas Nandwana, a senior research associate and the paper’s first author said in the news release. “Our sponge can remediate these spills in a more economic, efficient and eco-friendly manner than any of the current state-of-the-art solutions,” he said.

The secret of how the new sponge can selectively absorb only the oil lies in a nanocomposite coating of nanostructures and a carbon-based substrate that attracts oil, repels water and is also magnetic. The composite’s 3D structure interacts with and binds the oil holding it until it is squeezed out.

“Our sponge works effectively in diverse and extreme aquatic conditions that have different pH and salinity levels,” said the lead scientist, Northwestern's Professor Vinayak Dravid. “We believe we can address a giga-ton problem with a nanoscale solution.”

The best part is that this composite can be used to coat any commercial sponge. All you have to do is apply a thin coating of it to the sponge, squeeze out the excess, and let it dry before use.

 It’s really that simple to convert an ordinary sponge into a smart sponge or OHM as it is called. And the OHM can absorb up to 30 times its own weight in oil. Plus, it is reusable up to a dozen times according to Euro News.

The researchers even came up with a plan on the best practices for the OHM. Nandwana told Euro News that the sponges will come in large sheets that are rolled. While there are no limitations in the size, he said that 2-3 feet width (61-91 centimeters) is enough. The sponge pads can be used on a beach after an oil spill or airdropped to soak up oil in the ocean.

While eliminating fossil fuels is the longtime goal, its continued use requires the liquids to be transported long distances and with that comes the risk of oil spills. When these occur, having a safer, more effective method to clean the affected oceans and fragile beach environments will go a long way in saving our marine wildlife and coastlines.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.