Biodiversity Climate Change Innovation

Polymer ‘sponge’ to help clean oil spills

The highly buoyant polymer is made of waste cooking oils and sulphur.

Australian scientists have developed a polymer “sponge” capable of soaking up oil spills. The highly buoyant polymer is made of waste cooking oils and sulphur, by-products of the food and petroleum industries, and has the ability to clean up crude oil and diesel spills.

As the polymer works as a sponge to absorb the waste materials it can be squeezed to recover the oil and then reused, Xinhua news agency reported.

Justin Chalker, a chemist from Flinders University whose laboratory led the study, said on Thursday the polymer can be deployed in two ways.

“The polymer can be added directly to the oil. Upon contact, the particles aggregate and the oil-polymer gel can be removed with a net. This is probably most useful in small spills in ports or in coastline remediation that is done manually,” said Chalker.

“For larger spills on the open sea, it is more practical to pack the polymer into a filter. The oil and water mixture could be pumped through the filter and the purified water discharged back into the ocean. The oil can then be recovered from the filter by compressing the oil-polymer product. This way, the oil, and polymer can both be re-used,” he added.

Chalker’s team is now working to establish a plant in South Australia that will increase their production capacity.

Once that step is achieved, they intend to commercialise the product on the scale required for serious clean-ups.

“The oil spills in the Amazon basin in Ecuador and the catastrophic oil pollution in the Niger Delta are two areas that might benefit from simple, inexpensive remediation strategies,” he said.

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