'Revolutionary' sponge soaks up oil spills

Millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 (Reuters)
Millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 (Reuters)

Cleaning up oil spills just got a lot easier with a breakthrough material which soaks up oil like a sponge.

Scientists from Deakin University in Australia have come up with the revolutionary solution which they say could save the earth from future disasters like the Gulf Coast BP spill in 2010.

Details of the boron nitrate nanosheet were published in the journal Nature Communications today, after two years of refinement at the university's Institute for Frontier Materials.

"Oil spills are a global problem and wreak havoc on our aquatic ecosystems, not to mention cost billions of dollars in damage," lead author Professor Ian Chen says.

"Everyone remembers the Gulf Coast disaster, but here in Australia they are a regular problem, and not just in our waters. Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, again amounting to large economic losses."

He says current methods of cleaning up oil are "inefficient and unsophisticated", take too long and cause ongoing and extensive damage to the environment.

The first stage of the product was completed in 2013, but it was just a powder that had absorption capabilities.

The next stage of the work provided a big challenge.

"You cannot simply throw powder onto oil – you need to be able to bind that powder into a sponge so that we can soak the oil up, and also separate it from water," Dr Chen says.

The nanosheet is made up of flakes which are several nonometers (one billionth of a metre) thick with tiny holes that can increase its surface area per gram to the size of five-and-a-half tennis courts.

The research team, which included scientists from Philadelphia’s Drexel University and Missouri University of Science and Technology, started with boron nitride, which is also known as white graphite. They broke it into atomically thin sheets and used them to make a sponge.

Another author on the paper, Dr Weiwei Lei, says the pores in the nanosheets can absorb oils and organic solvents up to 33 times its own weight.

The nanosheets don't burn, and can also be used in flexible and transparent electrical and heat insulation, as well as in a number of other applications.

The researchers say the sponge is ready to be trialled by industry.

3 News