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Could a humble sponge help clean up oil spills?

Oil spills have huge and immediately damaging economic, social and environmental impacts, as shown by this year’s major oil spill in Mauritian waters. But US researchers have developed an industrial-scale sponge which they say could provide a solution, absorbing more than 30 times its weight in oil without soaking up water.

“As long as fossil fuels are still in circulation, there will always be oil spills,” said Professor Vinayak Dravid from Northwestern University, Illinois.  “We wanted to create a technology which can make cleaning oil spillages much easier and, more importantly, much cleaner and safer for the environment.”

Researchers have therefore developed a sponge capable of selectively soaking up oil spills found in ocean water. The sponge has a coating of magnetic nanostructures and a carbon-based surface that attracts oil and resists water. It then binds to the oil molecules, capturing and storing the oil until it is squeezed out.

The oil recovered from the sponges could then be sold back to who was responsible for the spillage, according to the researchers. There is even hope that after an oil recovery the sponge could be recycled into lithium ion batteries by burning into soot for use as an electrodes.

Current methods in cleaning up oil spills are not yet sustainable in terms of cost and how effective they are. But this invention can be used repeatedly and could, according to Dravid, “help save the fauna and flora on Mauritius’s shores”.

A key issue developers had to overcome was the sponges effectiveness in rough ocean waters. To mimic natural waves, the team put the sponge on a shaker submerged in water. Even after vigorous shaking, the sponge released less than 1% of the oil it had absorbed back into the water.

Other solutions have included a magnetic soap made of dissolvable iron rich salts and autonomous robots such as the Sea Swarm robot that can hold up to 20 times its weight in oil.

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The oil industry is beginning to slow down but as long as there is demand it will exist. Governments should be investing in post-Covid recoveries which put clean energy at the forefront. If they are not, it is our job to hold them to account.

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