Squeaky clean victory for sponge that mops up oil spills

Oleo Sponge was able to successfully remove oil sheen from the surface of the water

By Priyanka Shrestha

A sponge that helps clean up oil spills is said to have lived up to its promise in an experiment conducted off the coast of South California.

The Oleo Sponge was tested in a setting that mimicked a real-world oil spill – and was able to successfully remove oil sheen from the surface of the water at the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel near Goleta.

A team of scientists from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory started out with polyurethane foam – commonly used in furniture cushions – and developed a technique that captured oil.

They said the cleanup method is simple – the sponge is dipped into the water and then wrung out and the oil is collected in containers for potential reuse or safe disposal, following which it can be used again.

They made a set of two-foot by two-foot sponges, deploying them for use on a small fishing boat like those used to help with emergency cleanup efforts after a spill.

Co-inventor Seth Darling, Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering at Argone said: “I was thrilled to see how well it performed. Oil sheen has always been a frustrating challenge for oil spill responders, with no good cleanup option available to date.

“This technology is so important because despite the industry’s best intentions, oil spills continue to happen and existing cleanup methods are surprisingly inadequate.”

Argonne currently makes the sponge in small quantities for research studies using laboratory equipment and is seeking commercialisation partners interested in scaling the technology.

The test was funded by the Palo Alto-based Anthropocene Institute, which addresses global resource and energy issues, including ocean conservation through technology and policy development.

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