New super sponge can suck up oil spills like nobody’s business

20 Apr 2018

Image: Tigergallery/Shutterstock

Australian scientists have developed a new super sponge that can soak up much of the damage caused by a major oil spill.

It was less than a decade ago that the Gulf of Mexico found itself awash with 4.9m barrels worth of toxic crude oil following an incident at the BP-contracted Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, and its effects will be scarring on the memory for years to come.

But it isn’t just these major events that are our biggest problem, as the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation has estimated that up to 7,000 tonnes of crude oil were spilt into the world’s oceans last year.

However, to prevent such incidents from becoming a long-term natural disaster, a team of scientists from South Australia’s Flinders University has developed what can only be called a ‘super sponge’, which is capable of soaking up the oil at the focal point of the incident.

According to The Guardian, the sponge is made from a new polymer comprising what amounts to two waste products: sulphur and canola cooking oil.

Both of these properties are hydrophobic, meaning they don’t interact with water but when the oil is sucked into the sponge, it is turned into a manageable gel.

In a paper published to the Advanced Sustainable Systems journal, the team led by Dr Justin Chalker described that once the polymer sponge has soaked up much of the crude oil, it can simply be squeezed dry and reused again, making it perfect for a major clean-up operation.

Global roll-out

Only six months in the making, the breakthrough sponge so far appears to be not only a better cleaner of oil spills, but substantially cheaper than existing clean-up methods such as polypropylene fibres and polyurethane foam.

“We anticipate that when we get to economies of scale, we will be able to compete in price with other materials that are used to soak up oil,” Chalker said.

“Our goal is for this to be used globally. It is inexpensive, and we have an eye for it to be used in parts of the world, such as the Amazon Basin in Ecuador and the Niger Delta that don’t have access to solutions to oil spills.”

The team’s goal is to now find a way to mass-produce the sponge, and it is in discussions with major government and engineering agencies to have it tested in locations throughout the next year.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic