Australian scientists have developed a polymer “sponge” capable of soaking up oil spills.
The highly buoyant polymer is made of waste cooking oils and sulphur, by-products of the food and petroleum industries, and has the ability to clean up crude oil and diesel spills.
Because the polymer works as a sponge to absorb the waste materials it can be squeezed to recover the oil and then reused.
Justin Chalker, a chemist from Flinders University whose laboratory led the study, said the polymer can be deployed in two ways.
“The polymer can be added directly to the oil. Upon contact, the particles aggregate and the oil-polymer gel can be removed with a net. This is probably most useful in small spills in ports or in coastline remediation that is done manually,” Chalker told Xinhua on Thursday.
“For larger spills on the open sea, it is more practical to pack the polymer into a filter.
“The oil and water mixture could be pumped through the filter and the purified water discharged back into the ocean. The oil can then be recovered from the filter by compressing the oil-polymer product. This way, the oil and polymer can both be re-used.”
Not only is the polymer made of recycled materials and re-usable, it is more efficient than traditional methods of cleaning up oil such as skimmers.
“Another advantage of our polymer is that it is extremely fast and the oil can be recovered. The polymer is also non-toxic,” Chalker said.
“Another intriguing concept in our study is that we are using a byproduct of the petroleum industry to make a new substance that can help that same industry with oil spills. This is an advance in managing chemical life cycles that is distinct from most oil sorbents prepared to date.”
Chalker’s team is now working to establish a plant in South Australia that will increase their production capacity.
Once that step is achieved, they intend to commercialize the product on the scale required for serious clean-ups.
“Our primary motivation at the outset was to find new uses for industrial byproducts. Once we discovered that this polymer is excellent at capturing crude oil and other hydrocarbon pollution, we realized that this might be an economically viable solution to active oil spills in developing regions that have limited resources,” Chalker said.
“The oil spills in the Amazon basin in Ecuador and the catastrophic oil pollution in the Niger Delta are two areas that might benefit from simple, inexpensive remediation strategies. We hope to establish collaborations that will facilitate field trials in these regions.” Enditem