Seth Darling and his colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have created a new material that can absorb up to 90 times its own weight in spilled oil and then be squeezed out like a sponge and reused. This is compared to most commercial products used for soaking up oil, called "sorbents," which act like a paper towel and are only good for a single use. Once the sorbents are used, they get incinerated along with the oil. New Scientist reports: The oil sponge consists of a simple foam made of polyurethane or polyimide plastics and coated with "oil-loving" silane molecules with a sweet spot for capturing oil. Too little chemical attraction would render the sponge useless as an absorber, whereas too much would mean the oil could not be released. In laboratory tests, the researchers found that when engineered with just the right amount of silane, their foam could repeatedly soak up and release oil with no significant changes in capacity. But to determine whether this material could help sort out a big spill in marine waters, they needed to perform a special large-scale test. To do this, the team made an array of square pads of the sponge material measuring around 6 square meters. "We made a lot of the foam, and then these pieces of foam were placed inside mesh bags -- basically laundry bags, with sewn channels to house the foam," Darling says. The researchers suspended their sponge-filled bags from a bridge over a large pool specially designed for practicing emergency responses to oil spills. They then dragged the sponges behind a pipe spewing crude oil to test the material's capability to remove oil from the water. They next sent the sponges through a wringer to remove the oil and then repeated the process, carrying out many tests over multiple days. This so-far unpublished test was conducted in early December at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey. Here's a video showing the sponge in action.
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