A new polyurethane foam sponge has been invented to clean up oil spills in the ocean.  A team from the Argonne National Laboratory created this sponge to tackle the unfortunate problem of oil messes in large bodies of water, messes that harm wildlife and destroy natural habitats.

The Oleo Sponge is polyurethane foam which is covered with oil loving molecules that pull the oil right out of the water.  It was tricky for the researchers to figure out how to get the molecules to stick to the foam, but they were able to infuse metal oxides with nanostructures and used that to attach the molecules to the foam, thus creating a sponge that can hold up to ninety times its weight.  This technique is known as sequential infiltration synthesis.

Most of the clean up methods used now must be thrown away after they become saturated, but not the Oleo Sponge.  It can be wrung out and used again. Some oils can even be reused, making this method of clean up great for the environment.   It can collect oil on the surface of the water as well as underneath. Barriers are able to prevent the spreading of oil and skimmers can clean oil on the surface but only the sponge is able to clean it all, and be reusable.

Seth Darling, the sponge’s co-inventor and a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, said,  “The material is extremely sturdy. We’ve run dozens to hundreds of tests, wringing it out each time, and we have yet to see it break down at all.”

Argonne is excited about this new invention and is actively looking to commercialize the sponge, and the sponge could be ready to sell as soon as five years from now.  

The sponge doesn’t have to wait for an oil spill to be of use.  Researchers say the the sponge can be attached to the back of cargo ships and tankers to soak up diesel fuel that spill in lesser amounts.

Research for the Oleo Sponge was funded by the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.