New Sponge That Can Clean Up Oil Spills

Oil spills can be costly for companies and for the environment.  A Swiss research company may have found a solution that could help mitigate some of those costs in the future.  The Swiss Federal Institute for Materials Science Technology (EMPA) has invented a new sponge that can clean up oil spills. It is simple in appearance but may prove to be a powerful tool in cleaning up oil spills in oceans and lakes.  

The EMPA Sponge for Oil Spill Clean Up

The EMPA sponge is ideal for oil spill clean ups:

  • The highly-absorbent EMPA sponge attracts oil instead of water, making them easy to separate.  
  • In laboratory tests, the sponge absorbed a variety of oils and other substances, from engine oil to acetone to chloroform, making it useful not only for traditional oil spills but for a variety of other chemical spills.
  • It can absorb up to 50 times its weight and still remain floating on the surface of the water.  
  • Even saturated in this manner, it also retains its shape, which makes the oil-saturated sponge easy to collect from the water.
  • The sponge can also be burnt directly on the surface of the water.  
  • Alternatively, it can be collected from the water and burnt elsewhere for fuel, making it useful for salvaging spilled oil for future use.  
  • The sponge can also be cleaned with ordinary dish soap, making it possible to economically reuse the sponge.


Making the EMPA Sponge

Not only is the EMPA sponge a possible revolution in the way companies handle oil spills, the sponge is made from recycled materials, providing an effective way to reuse waste from the agricultural and forestry industries. The EMPA sponge is made cheaply from materials from these industries, such as wood scraps, plant debris, and recycled paper.  The pulp is chemically treated and mashed into a pulp; it is then mixed with water to create a kind of gel.  When the gel is freeze-dried, it becomes the lightweight sponge that has the power to change the way industries respond to oil spills.

Wilcor Holdings, a Swiss manufacturer, has entered into a two-year partnership with EMPA and is open to making the sponge available to whomever needs it.  Zurich police have already employed the sponge to clean up oil from motorboats in some Swiss lakes.    


Other Oil Spill Solutions

A group of American researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a similar sponge, dubbed the "Greener" Aerogel.  Also constructed from wood and paper waste, the substance similarly absorbs oil without absorbing water.  In addition, the Aerogel could also prove useful in absorbing substances that contain metal ions.  Though more work needs to be done before it can be mass-produced, the Aerogel shows promise as another helpful substance in cleaning up oil spills.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed another simple solution that appears to be effective.  A system of dual membranes, each membrane responding to liquids of with different properties, has successful separated oil from water with 99.9% effectiveness.

At the University of East Anglia, researchers are taking an entirely different approach. They are experimenting with a form of bacteria that can live off of gases, such as methane and propane.  If their work continues to be successful, they may be able to use the bacteria to eat oil spills away.


Oil and Chemical Spill Preparedness

The world watched in 2010 as British Petroleum struggled to find a method to clean up its colossal oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  For three months, oil gushed, releasing a total of 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean.  Because there was a lack of a clear solution to manage the volume of the spill, the environmental impact and the financial ramifications for BP were manifold.  

If your company is involved with crude oil extraction or regularly transports oil or other oil-based chemicals via ocean vessels, it is essential that you be prepared for a worst case scenario, like BP faced.  Working with a hazardous waste management company that can keep you informed of cutting-edge developments like the EMPA sponge can ensure you are prepared long before disaster strikes.  

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