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Dianna Bautista
Science communicator. The university of Edinburgh.
May 12, 2017 · 312 Reads

‘Oleo Sponge’ may be the future of cleaning up oil spills

InShort: A group of researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory have developed a sponge that will collect oil from bodies of water, which could improve how harbors and ports are cleaned, as well as how oil spills are managed.


Every now and then there is a report of a major oil spill. Seven months ago, nearly 24 thousand gallons of oil were leaked in to the North Sea. And seven years ago, the 2010 Deep Horizon Oil spill resulted in 210 million gallons of oil flooding the Mexican Gulf, making it the second largest oil spill in history.

However large or small the oil spill, one major problem is the damage the oil does to the marine ecosystem.

The effects of oil spills can last for years, which is why finding effective methods of oil spill clean up is important. At current, the common method of oil spill clean up is single use sorbent booms (long tubes which collect the oil) which are used in combination with skimmers (machines which take up oil from the surface of the water), and burned after use, resulting in the loss of the boom and the oil it absorbed.

Method and Science

One new and promising method for clean up is the Oleo sponge: a reusable material that can soak up to 90 times its weight in oil. Not only can the sponge absorb oil both on and below the surface of the water, but after soaking up the oil, the sponge can be wrung out and the oil reused.

Created by a by Seth Darling and his research team at the United States Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, the Oleo sponge works by featuring an specific concentration of “oil-loving” molecules, called silane molecules, which coat a polyurethane or polyimide plastic.

To test the material’s effectiveness, the research team recreated an oil spill. In a large pool at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey, the team placed 6 metre wide square arrays of Oleo sponge foam in mesh bags and soaked up oil pouring out of a pipe. They then wrung out the sponge and repeated the experiment over many days. Their results revealed a sturdy material which performed better than the commercial sorbent they tested.


The Oleo Sponge still has to pass a few more tests, such as tests to if the material can withstand the pressures of a harsh ocean environment, before it is used to clean ocean oil spills. However, after passing both laboratory testing and the recreated oil spill, its potential use looks promising. Dr. Darling tells New Scientist, “in an ideal world, you would have warehoused collections of this foam sitting near wherever there are offshore operations… or where there’s a lot of shipping traffic, or right on rigs… ready to go when the spill happens.”

Research Article: Enhanced Block Copolymer Lithography Using Sequential Infiltration Synthesis. J. Phys. Chem. C, 2011, 115 (36), pp 17725–17729

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