We can’t seem to prevent oil spills, so the next best thing is mopping them up. Researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, have come up with a super-absorbent nano sponge which you throw down onto an oil slick like you’d toss a kitchen towel onto spilled coffee.
The new material, from lead researcher Ying Chen and his team, is made from boron nitride, and it can suck up 33 times its own weight in oil and organic solvents.
Made up of tiny nanometer-thick flakes, one gram of the material has a surface area equivalent to five and a half tennis courts. This huge surface lets it soak up spills in the same way a sponge sucks up bathwater.
The material was first conceived two years ago, but wasn’t of any practical use. “In 2013, we developed the first stage of the material, but it was simply a powder,” Chen says. ”This powder had absorption capabilities, but 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.”
The sheets aren’t just useful on water. “Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, again amounting to large economic losses,” says Chen. The nanosheet can be deployed on these road spills to quickly mop them up, getting traffic moving much sooner.
The real trick here is actually making the sheets, which Chen’s team has gotten down to a simple one-step process, detailed in their just-published paper. Previously, says the paper, high temperatures were required. The new method is done at room temperature and involves little more than washing and milling the raw boron nitride to make an ultra-light aerogel.
“This ambient temperature method has several advantages, including scalability for mass production, low cost, high yield and does not require the use of organic solvents, catalysts, substrates or vacuum systems,” says the paper.
This ease of manufacture, along with a design that is simple to deploy, should make for a handy tool in combatting the immediate hazards of oil spills. Field tests are pending.