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The way we clean up oil spills has not changed in decades.  These scientists want to change that.

More than a decade after the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and as the Coast Guard works to contain yet another disaster off the coast of southern California, experts say, surprisingly, not much has changed in the way oil spills are cleaned up.

Many of the same tools and technologies have been deployed to deal with these environmental disasters over the past 20 years, but now two teams of scientists say their reusable sponges can soak up oil on the surface and underwater – in some cases contain more than 30 times their weight – without further harming the marine environment.

This is the kind of innovation that they believe could make cleaning up oil spills, like the situation currently unfolding off Huntington Beach, not only more efficient but also more effective. An estimated 126,000 gallons of heavy crude escaped from a ruptured pipeline in the Pacific Ocean early Saturday, sparking frantic efforts to prevent the oil from washing up on the region’s beaches and its protected marshes.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that when there is an oil spill, in almost all cases most of the oil is never cleaned up by humans,” said Seth Darling, director of the Center for Molecular Engineering at Argonne National. Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. “We clean up some of it, and the rest, Mother Nature ends up cleaning up, but not quickly, and it’s wreaking havoc on the local environment the whole time.”

Environmental response teams clean up oil that sank near Talbert Marsh and the mouth of the Santa Ana River, creating a splash on the water Monday after an oil spill in the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach, in California.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP – Getty Images

Darling and his colleagues at Argonne developed a tool called the Oleo sponge, which is made by modifying the same type of foam commonly used in seat cushions and mattresses to make it ‘oleophilic’, meaning that ‘It can suck oil without soaking also. down to the water.

At Northwestern University, a team of scientists developed a similar absorbent called the OHM sponge that uses a specially designed magnetic coating to selectively absorb oil in water.

“Oil and water don’t mix well, but when they do, they are very difficult to remove,” said Vinayak Dravid, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern, who led the research. “We wanted something that could not only suck up oil, but also do it very quickly.”

In laboratory tests, Dravid and his colleagues have shown that the OHM sponge can absorb over 30 times its weight in oil and can be reused over 40 times without losing its effectiveness.

With the Oleo sponge and OHM sponge, the recovered oil can be reused, which also means less overall waste after spills.

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a reusable sponge with a magnetic coating that attracts oil and can absorb more than 30 times its own weight.MFNS-Tech

Darling and Dravid both said their sponges were designed to fill a gap in the technologies available to clean up oil spills, giving officials a new way to respond to major incidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, when around 210 millions of gallons of oil have been spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. While satellite technologies for mapping and modeling oil spills have improved dramatically since the Deepwater Horizon spill, the processes for cleanup crews on the water and on beaches have remained mostly stagnant.

“Deepwater Horizon should have driven a lot of innovation but didn’t,” said John Pardue, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University, who conducted research and ran an advisory program for a trust. property in Louisiana following the 2010 spill.

He said this is because resources are typically spent on studying the spill sites, as well as the effect of the oil leaks on the environment and the plants and animals in the area, while the funding for the development of new cleaning tools is generally limited.

“There have been improvements in the modeling of how spills move and how oil affects fish and animals in the depths of the ocean and marshes, but in terms of response work there is has had a few things that have been tried but nothing has reached the level of something that is going to be used to move forward, ”said Pardue.

Scientists like Darling and Dravid hope to change that.

Today, cleanup crews typically use booms to contain oil spills and prevent them from spreading. The oil can then be skimmed off the surface, but this method is less effective in rough waters, and waves can push the oil deeper into the ocean, where it is much more difficult to clean up.

Another method of removing oil from the surface of the water is to burn it, but there are obvious drawbacks to using this strategy.

“It takes a lot of oil out of the water, but of course it turns a water pollution problem into an air pollution problem,” Darling said.

Local authorities can also spray oil slicks with dispersants, which break the oil into smaller droplets that mix more easily with water. The idea is to remove the oil through biodegradation, in which bacteria and other microorganisms naturally feed on the oil and essentially remove it from the environment.

With the Oleo sponge, Darling said it was a new type of absorbent that can soak up spills on the surface and when oil has seeped deeper into the water column. And since the sponges can be reused, they are a “greener” alternative to the tools currently available.

In 2017, researchers tested the sponges in a giant saltwater tank in New Jersey and demonstrated that they could collect diesel and crude oil both under and on the surface of the water. Scientists also tested the Oleo sponge on a natural oil seep off the California coast near Santa Barbara to assess how it worked in real environments.

Darling said the Coast Guard and private companies have expressed interest in the Oleo sponge. The goal now, he said, is to find a partner to handle large-scale sponge manufacturing.

With the OHM sponge, Dravid said he expects the technology to be commercially available soon. He added that his team had previously sent samples to colleagues in California to help with recovery efforts in and around Huntington Beach.

In addition to on-water cleanup efforts, Dravid and his colleagues are exploring how the OHM sponge can be modified to soak up oil washed up on beaches or to help clean up other types of dangerous contamination.

Dravid said he can’t wait for his research to have an impact, but it comes at a bittersweet cost.

“It’s strange because on the one hand, we are delighted to have the opportunity to show how this technology can make a difference,” he said. “But with the oil spills, we are always sad for the environmental side of things.”

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