When the Deepwater Horizon drilling pipe blew out seven years ago, beginning the worst oil spill in U.S. history, those in charge of the recovery discovered a new wrinkle: The millions of gallons of oil bubbling from the sea floor weren’t all collecting on the surface, where it could be skimmed or burned. Some of it was forming a plume and drifting through the water under the surface.
Now scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have invented a new foam, called Oleo Sponge, that addresses this problem. The material not only easily absorbs oil from water, but is also reusable and can pull dispersed oil from the entire water column—not just the surface.
“The Oleo Sponge offers a set of possibilities that, as far as we know, are unprecedented,” said co-inventor Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and a fellow of the University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering. “We already have a library of molecules that can grab oil, but the problem is how to get them into a useful structure and bind them there permanently.”