Researchers have created something pretty amazing: a reusable sponge that soaks up 90 times its weight in oil.
Our current way of life depends on fossil fuels. With any luck, we’ll change that in the future, but for now, we use petroleum for just about everything. It’s not just the fuel your vehicle burns–no, it’s much more than that. From the new heart valve in your grandfather’s chest to the pantyhose on your grandmother’s legs and the very screen you’re reading this on, petroleum-based products are everywhere you look.
Unfortunately, all that crude oil needs to be moved around the planet, and since we are humans and we screw up, from time to time we vomit vast amounts of it from the bloated bellies of tanker ships or a ruptured pipeline. Then, of course, it’s a disaster. Plants and animals dead, decades of cleanup, and a slap on the wrist for the company that caused it all. It’s become nothing more than the cost of doing a very lucrative business. But someone’s got to clean up the mess, and the sponge technology looks like it’s going to help.
The sponge was developed by researchers at Argonne National Lab. Oil spills are cleaned up using a variety of methods–sorbent booms, oil skimmers, etc–but all of them are slow, expensive, and frankly, don’t work all that well. Sorbent booms, while more effective than most other options, can only be used once, so huge oil spills require huge amounts of sorbent material. The oil sponge, however, can be wrung out and used again and again, up to 100 times.
Made from polyurethane–a material that ironically comes from petroleum–the sponge is coated in a substance called silane. The silane attracts the oil and the polyurethane soaks it up. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, though… the ratio of silane to polyurethane is incredibly precise, and according to Popular Mechanics, might make it unusable (in its current form, at least) in the open ocean. Still, though, the sponge holds promise and can be used in calm waters.
Researchers are still testing and tweaking the material, but have high hopes for its use in the future. The rest of us, however, have high hopes that it won’t be necessary.