Scientists Create Material That Could Absorb Oil Spills Like A Sponge

29/11/2015 7:53 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Deakin University

Scientists from Deakin University have created a new type of material that can absorb oil, potentially creating a new way to combat environmental disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The material -- a "boron nitride nanosheet" -- absorbs oil like a sponge does.

It currently takes the form of an ultra-thin film that is porous and flexible.

“Oil spills are a global problem and wreak havoc on our aquatic ecosystems, not to mention cost billions of dollars in damage,” lead author of the paper detailing the breakthrough, Professor Ying Chen, said.

“Everyone remembers the Gulf Coast disaster, but here in Australia they are a regular problem, and not just in our waters. Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, again amounting to large economic losses.”

It’s these smaller spills that the team behind the development hope could be fixed first by the material. From there, Professor Chen said he hoped it could be used on a wider scale.

“It’s another step further. Two years ago we found the material, now we’ve produced two different forms of it. it’s a big step towards the final application,” Professor Chen told The Huffington Post.

And it reportedly does far better than existing cleanup technologies when it comes to mopping up a spill. Oil spills are notoriously difficult to clean up, with plugging the spill (often more than a hundred metres under water) a challenge in itself, and methods like burning the oil or scraping it from the water time-consuming or polluting in themselves.

“The material showed a high efficiency for oil absorption, cleaning absorption. It’s easy to recollect, and can be re-used. These advantages are not possible with the traditional oil-spill cleaning methods,” Professor Chen told HuffPost Australia.

The nanosheet has already undergone industry testing and is slated to be trialled further by industry in the next couple of years.

The material also has a range of potential uses outside of the environmental field, including as a battery component.

“It has a good thermal conductivity, so it passes heat quickly and is the perfect membrane for a battery separator,” Professor Chen said.

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