Researchers Invent A Sponge That Could Transform Oil Spill Cleanup

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Researchers have designed a new material that could completely revolutionize the way oil spills are cleaned up.

When the Deepwater Horizon spill happened in 2010, the cleanup presented an unexpected challenge. Millions of gallons of oil didn't collect on the surface, where it could be skimmed off or burned, but instead was drifting through the ocean below the waves.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Lab have invented a material that could prevent a similar situation in future spills.

The foam, called Oleo Sponge, can soak up 90 times its own weight in oil before it needs to be wrung out to be reused — and the oil can be recovered.

oleo sponge

“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,” co-inventor Seth Darling said in a release.

Currently, most products for cleaning up oil are single use, and the oil is wasted. One of the most common products is a sorbent boom — a long tube that's thrown on the surface of the water to soak up part of the spill, before being removed to be safely disposed of. It, and other solutions, can be pricey and slow.

Darling and his team tested the sponge at a giant seawater tank at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey.

The researchers say it could be used to clean harbors and ports, where diesel and oil can accumulate from ships. They say it could also be adapted to clean different substances, by modifying the type of molecule that grabs onto the dirty substance.

There were 55 oil and gas spills from pipelines in Canada in 2015, according to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, down from 122 in 2014.

Watch how researchers tested the sponge above.

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