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Argonne Invention Could Literally Soak Up Oil Spills Like a Sponge

The Oleo Sponge could make cleaning up these environmental disasters much more efficient.

The Oleo Sponge   Photo: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory

The problem

When, say, a rig springs a leak, the oil that accumulates underwater is nearly impossible to remove with traditional methods like skimming the surface.

The solution

Argonne’s Oleo Sponge is made of polyurethane foam, the stuff you find in seat cushions. The fancy part? The foam is coated with chemical vapors to create an external layer of aluminum oxide, which is then treated with oil-loving and water-hating molecules. The idea is to fashion the sponge into the form of a fishing net that a ship can drag. Voilà: Oil in, water out.

Rinse and repeat

The key is reusability. “You can wring it out, capture the oil [for recycling], and throw the sponge back in the water,” says Argonne chemist Jeff Elam.

What now?

The Argonne team is looking for commercial partners to scale up and exploring other applications, such as pulling hydrocarbons out of fracking wastewater for energy use.

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