Large oil spills occur periodically around the world. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a recent example. The Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989 certainly left many indelible images in many minds.
It’s not surprising then that when spills like this do occur, we want to have the best tools available to clean up the mess as fast and as completely as possible. Some of the current methods include: skimmers to clean up oil on the surface or water; dispersants to dissipate oil slicks: bioremediation, using biological agents, to break down or remove oil; dredging to pull out oil that is thicker than water; and solidifying, in which polymers change the physical state of the spilled oil into a solid or gel that can then be easily removed from a spill site.
Now, scientists from Pennsylvania State University have improved on the latter tool. The polymer tool from T.C. Mike Chung and Xuepei Yuan, professors in the university’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, transforms the oil in spills into soft, solid oil-containing gel that absorb 40 times its own weight, reports the American Chemical Society. A summary of their research was published in a paper in Energy Fuels.
Traditional methods of cleaning up oil spills have disadvantages, such as being old-fashioned, decades-old, and low-tech. Corncobs and straw are often used but they can absorb only about 5 times their weight and pick up water, in addition to the oil, the researchers say. The resulting materials are classified as industrial waste and have to be disposed of in special landfills or burned.
The Penn State polymer, on the other hand, can be converted into a liquid after it has absorbed the oil and then refined like regular crude oil. One pound of the polymer can soak up about 5 gallons of crude oil. The researchers claim that the oil would be worth about $15, compared with crude oil selling for $100 a barrel.
“Overall, this cost-effective new polyolefin oil-SAP technology shall dramatically reduce the environmental impacts from oil spills and help recover one of our most precious natural resources,” the researchers say.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.