Oil spill technology takes a leaf out of nature’s book

A troublesome aquatic fern may hold the key to cleaning up oil spills. More commonly known for choking waterways with leaves and damaging ecosystems, Salvinia molesta could now prove useful […]

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By Jonny Bairstow

A troublesome aquatic fern may hold the key to cleaning up oil spills.

More commonly known for choking waterways with leaves and damaging ecosystems, Salvinia molesta could now prove useful by soaking up petroleum without absorbing surrounding water and thus cutting disposal costs.

Claudia Zeiger, Researcher at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT), said: “We are looking at nature, trying to understand what nature does and how it works and using that for technical applications.”

Three years ago IMT developed ‘nanofur’, a synthetic version of the hairy, absorbent structures covering Salvinia molesta’s leaves, made by pressing a hot steel plate into a polymer foil.

“The surface of the polymer melts, and when the steel plate is retracted, micro- and nanoscaled hairs are pulled from the surface. It’s like cheese on a pizza. The surface melts and pulls up and then freezes as we get a surface that is hairy and has similar structures,” Ms Zeiger added.

She believes that both the Salvinia plant and the synthetic nanofur can be used to clean up oil spills and continues working to scale up the nanofur so it can be used outside the laboratory.