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Scientists develop special oil sponge

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory have found a revolutionary new way to clean up after oil spills: the Oleo Sponge.

The amount of oil that can be absorbed is 90 times the weight of the sponge, and it can be reused simply by wringing it out.

Occasional accidents are inevitable in such a large industry, so it is important for response teams to have adequate tools to contain and clean up oil spills quickly and minimise environmental damage.

While there are existing clean-up technologies—such as skimming, bioremediation, dispersants, dredging and solidifying—cleaning up an oil spill is often complicated and depends on numerous factors, such as weather conditions and water temperature. More importantly, these methods generally focus on oil slicks on the surface and ignore the tiny droplets of oil that can be suspended below the surface.

Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that subsurface oil had affected sea life in large parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

The US Coastguard, which funded the research, specifically requested a way of collecting subsurface oil. The Olea Sponge is the first such product to achieve this.

The development will no doubt be of interest to oil giants such as ExxonMobil, which makes industrial lubricants like Mobil Velocite 3, as they endeavour to minimise oil spills and respond quickly to those that still occur.

The new technology is apparently ready for licencing, and the research team is investigating other applications for the sponge’s selective coating.

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