“Nanosponge” Could Soak Up Oil Spills

By Eliza Strickland | June 2, 2008 6:13 pm

nanowires nanotechA mesh made of tiny metal nanowires could clean up oil spills in the ocean, according to a new report [Nature Nanotechnology, subscription required]. The “nanosponge,” which looks like a thin piece of brown paper, can sit on top of water without ever getting wet, while absorbing 20 times its weight in oil.

The MIT nanotech researchers haven’t tested their invention outside the lab yet, but say the nanosponge could be more effective than materials that are currently used to sop up oil, which often absorb water as well as the targeted oil, and which can’t be reused.

The nanowires, which are each 20 nanometers in diameter, are made of potassium manganese oxide and clump together naturally in dense tangles. The researchers then coated the material with a water-repelling silicone layer.

Because the membrane is mostly air, it functions like a sponge, drawing in liquid through capillary action. But because the surfaces are unfavourable to water, the membrane selectively absorbs hydrophobic solvents such as oil [Nature News].

In theory, the paper-like material could be laid down on top of oil slicks created in disasters like the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, or last year’s freighter accident in San Francisco Bay. When the nanosponges are saturated, they could be hauled in and prepared for the next round.

Michael Rubner, an MIT materials science and engineering professor who was not involved in the project, says that the membrane’s reusability is its most distinctive feature… The inorganic nanowires can handle temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius, where organic materials would degrade. “If the membrane becomes foul with oil or you have to remove the oil, … [you] can basically cook it and clean it up and, in principle, use it over and over again,” Rubner says [Technology Review].

Image: Francesco Stellacci

  • http://ExxonValdezOilSpillWorkersvsExxon Merle Savage

    Are these the Actions of Our US Lady Justice?

    Tipping Scales?
    Peeking for Corporate Interest?
    Accepting Bribes?
    Knee Deep in Exxon Oil?
    Allowing Human Life as Exxon’s Collateral Damage?

    To view Lady Justice:

    An investigative study needs to be conducted into the thousands of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) workers’ health issues, and acknowledged as Exxon’s negligence; not as Exxon’s Collateral Damage.

    This letter is released in the hope of informing the media, public and anyone who is concerned about human interest stories relating to the present oil and gas issues. Exxon has been fighting an Alaska jury’s verdict for 14 years, contending that the $3.5 billion it already has spent, following the worst oil spill in U.S. history is enough. The Alaska jury initially awarded $5 billion to 33,000 commercial fishermen, Native Alaskans, landowners, businesses and local governments.

    After 19 years, and only four months of deliberating, on June 25, 2008, the US Supreme Court Justices announced their decision. They cut the punitive damages yet again. When that amount is divided by Alaska’s plaintiff’s lives that were destroyed by the oil spill; is $15,000 the Supreme Court’s price for life? Exxon has still not accepted full responsibility for the tragic EVOS alleged cleanup of 1989. Yet, Exxon continues to boast of profits each year, and along with other oil companies raise prices at the gasoline pumps.

    Here is the rest of the story: In 1989, while media and public attention focused on the thousands of oil-coated dead seabirds, otters, and other wildlife, little attention was given to the harm done to the EVOS cleanup workers.
    As workers blasted oiled beaches, with hot seawater from high pressure hoses, they were engulfed in toxic fumes containing aerosolized crude oil—benzene and other volatile compounds, oil mist, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. View photos at: http://www.silenceinthesound.com/gallery.shtml
    It is a major concern that the cleanup workers from the 1989 EVOS are suffering from long-term health problems resulting from toxic chemical exposures. A significant number of the workers have died. Some of the illnesses include neurological impairment, chronic respiratory disease, leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, liver damage, and blood diseases. View stories at: http://www.silenceinthesound.com/stories.shtml

    Dr. Riki Ott has written two books; Sound Truth & Corporate Myth$ and Not One Drop. http://www.soundtruth.info
    Dr. Riki Ott has investigated, studied the oil spill spraying, and quotes numerous reports in her books, on the toxic chemicals that were used during the 1989 Prince William Sound oily beach cleanup.
    For more information or to issue a letter of concern to originations about these issues, please contact:
    Riki Ott, PhD, phone: 907-424-3915;
    email: info@soundtruth.info
    Pamela Miller, phone 907-222-7714;
    email: pkmiller@akaction.net
    View the letter at: http://www.usmwf.org/bills/Alaskarequest%20.pdf

    Submitted by: Merle (Bailey) Savage, General Foreman during the (EVOS) cleanup attempt of 1989. Phone: 702-367-2224; http://www.silenceinthesound.com
    email: msavage12@cox.net

  • Doug

    It would be interesting to see if this technology could be expanded to help in the recovery of kerogen from oil shale.

  • Angie

    I totally agree with Merle Savage: I reckon it is indeed weird, that (most) media tend to focus on the suffering of animals and not (that much) on what happens to other people (unless they decide it´s a “good story”). Don´t get me wrong: I strongly support the protection of animal rights myself. But I think it´s about time to face what is happening to our own kind with the same amount of compassion that we provide our animal friends with.


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