Scientists develop innovative reusable sponge to clean up oil spills in cold waters

Credit: Science of The Total Environment (2024).

Oil spills can cause severe damage to marine and coastal environments if not cleaned up quickly.

To address this, a team of North American researchers has developed a new sponge-like material that effectively absorbs oil and can be reused, even in icy Canadian waters.

Their findings were published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.

The innovative material, called CNF-SP aerogel, combines a biodegradable cellulose-based material with spiropyran, a light-sensitive substance.

Spiropyran has a unique “switchable” property that allows the aerogel to alternate between being oil-absorbent and oil-repellent.

This is similar to how a kitchen sponge can soak up and squeeze out water.

Dr. Baiyu Helen Zhang, a professor and Canada Research Chair at Memorial University in Newfoundland, explains how the process works: “After each use, we switch the light condition. We use the aerogel as an oil sorbent under visible light. After absorbing the oil, we switch to UV light, which helps the sponge release the oil.”

The aerogel can repeatedly soak up and release oil, even in cold water, according to Dr. Xiujuan Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Texas–Arlington.

“We found that the oil sorbent performed very well in different environmental conditions, including cold environments. This is particularly useful for cold winter seasons, especially in Canada.”

The researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) Mid-IR beamline to study the aerogel’s characteristics before and after exposure to visible and UV light. They now plan to scale up their research with large pilot studies and field tests.

Dr. Zhang highlights the importance of the CLS: “The CLS has unique infrastructure that supports students and researchers like us to conduct exciting research and contribute to scientific knowledge and engineering applications.”

This new reusable sponge-like material offers a promising solution for cleaning up oil spills in challenging conditions, helping to protect marine and coastal environments from long-term damage.