The blowout at the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010 was one of the worst in U.S. history. The ones in charge of the recovery discovered that the oil couldn’t be cleaned up using traditional methods such as skimming or burning because the oil was drifting away below the surface of the ocean water.
Seven years into the future, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory invented a new foam, called the Oleo Sponge that made oil spill recovery much simpler and effective. The Oleo sponge absorbs the oil not just from the surface of the water but from the entire column. The material makes it reusable and the oil collected from the sponge can be reused as well. The performance of the sponge in deep waters is still unclear but it is effective in cleaning up the spills that are on the surface and just below.
Initially, the sponge was a specially treated polyurethane foam that could absorb about 30 times its weight in oil. Seth Darling, the co-creator and Argonne chemist, Jeff Elam developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis, a.k.a, SIS, to infuse hard metal oxide ion atoms into complicated nanostructures. On further development, they came up with a method to grow a thin layer of the metal ion atoms in the interior surfaces of the sponge, thus making it attract oil molecules.
This sponge was tested in a saltwater tank in New Jersey where the sponge was successful in collecting oil above and below the surface. The capacity of the sponge to be reused and the oil absorbed to be recovered, cuts down on carrying a bulk of the material on boats to recover spills.
The possibilities and applications are endless and researchers are constantly finding ways to mass produce it. Hopefully, it is made available to clean up crews as soon as possible.