Trying to clean millions of tons of oil flowing on ocean’s surface is an almost impossible task. Companies use chemicals that dissolve oil, but also produce a new form of chemical pollution. There is no way to protect the fish, the birds. Right now many oil slicks flow on the open ocean doing unimaginable damage to every ecosystem they meet. And even though oil posse such a threat, oil companies (such as BP or Shell) don’t seem to really invest in developing a safe and efficient way to clean up the oceans, seas and even rivers.
Where refineries lack good intentions scientists enter. In recent years stopping oil spills became the goal of researchers in the United States, China, India Spain, Belgium and Japan (and probably in other countries, but their efforts hasn’t been so well know). Their goal was to create a safe and environmental friendly tool to clean up oil. And there have been two main solutions proposed by scientists. A “sponge” that absorbs only oil and not water thanks to a type of bacteria that “eats” oil and dissolves it without creating any other chemical pollution. And I would like to take a closer look at those “sponges”.
On April of 2012, researches at Penn State and Rice universities presented special nanotube blocks that can in the future help in cleaning up the oceans from oil. The scientists created a special material by adding a dash of boron to carbon while creating nanotubes. These nanotube sponges showed very peculiar abilities. They are hydrophobic, so they don’t drown nor absorb water, but absorb oil even separating it from water. But, what is even more astonishing – you can’t burn those sponges, as they are 99% air, but can manage them with magnets.
If you drop a nanotube sponge in water with oil spills, it can absorb more than a hundred times it weight in oil. Than you can take the sponge out and burn out the oil or retrieve it from the sponge. What is really important, nanotube sponges can be used repeatedly. The researchers said they used one for more than 10 thousand tries and it still remained elastic and absorbed oil.
Nanotubes have been created before. But no previous creation had these abilities and was possible to be made into a macrostructure. Adding boron, an element very close to carbon made the difference. Boron really help building macro scale fabrics (big sponges). The scientists are working now on making the block of nanotubes bigger, so it can effectively work on spills bigger than a few drops of oil. It is a big challenge to make those nanotube blocks to stick together and remained as solid, large sheets resembling sponges. But the already presented sponges are anything like anyone created before. And as one of the researchers, Pulickel Ajayan said: “It’s a spectacular nanostructured sponge.”
The success of scientists from Penn State University and Rice University begs to ask the following question – why aren’t the oil companies helping them, giving huge grants, so we all could live to see the beginning of major ocean clean up? Shouldn’t the people responsible for causing almost unrepairable damage be the same people trying to prevent future catastrophes? It seems there is not logical implication between those two actions. At least not for people from BP, Shell and other oil conglomerates.