Oil spills have always been a source of huge concern for the global ecosystem, ever since 1901. With the BP oil spill having only left the headlines, leaving behind a depressing trail of damaged marine life, scientists have been trying to develop ways of tackling these costly mishaps for ages.
The Oleo Sponge, formulated by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, has the ability to soak up oil from water – not just the surface, but also pockets of oil underwater – a characteristic that is particularly useful because of phenomenon observed during the Deepwater Horizon spill: after the oil spill, instead of travelling to the surface of the water as bubbles where it can be burned and discarded, large pockets of oil were seen to be travelling underwater, damaging the ecosystem all the same.
Moreover, the Oleo Sponge is re-useable. The absorbed oil can be wrung out, making both the oil and the sponge fit for use again – so with proper scaling of this revolutionary invention, not only can the spills be reversed, but the losses from spilled oil can also be recovered to some extent.
On a smaller and more scalable scope, this sponge can also be used to routinely clean harbors and shipyards where oil and grease from passing ships regularly accumulate, polluting the water bit by bit.
While oil spill sponges are not entirely new to the market, the scientists at Argonne coated the Oleo sponge with a thin layer of metal oxide primer near the foam's interior surfaces, an oil-loving molecule, allowing the sponge to soak up all oil in the vicinity, but not water. This automatically makes Oleo more efficient in the process.
With further research, the scientists are confident that the same procedure can be used to develop sponges that can soak up almost any substance, depending on the kind of primer used for coating. The possibilities within laboratories itself for these products are endless.