In March 2017, Ars wrote about a new material that could soak up oil like a sponge. The so-called Oleo Sponge could be wrung out, the oil could be collected, and the sponge could be used again. The material had just been developed at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) outside of Chicago, so it was still being tested in controlled environments.
Now, Argonne has announced a successful real-world test of the Oleo Sponge at an oil seep in a channel near Goleta, California.
The test, conducted in April, involved immersing the Oleo Sponge in the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel. The oil seep field is natural and one of the largest in the known world (PDF). Not only does it release lots of methane every day, but it also releases oil into the channel water. A press release from ANL notes, “the seeps have been active for at least 500,000 years and release roughly 40 tons of methane, 19 tons of other organic gases, and more than 100 barrels of liquid petroleum daily.”
The aim of Argonne’s April test was to use the Oleo Sponge to remove oil sheen, a coating of oil on water that is generally only one micron thick. Removing that kind of oil could be a primary application for Oleo’s Sponge, especially in harbors and near major metropolitan areas, where vehicle runoff after rainstorms and recreational boats vomits oil into the natural habitat. Oil sheen is usually too thin to be burned or skimmed (which are questionably effective methods, anyway).
Argonne’s researchers built two-foot-by-two-foot Oleo Sponges, which are made of polyurethane foam infused with molecules that bind with oil but reject water.
“The Oleo Sponge worked just as researchers had predicted: it was able to successfully remove oil sheen from the surface of the water, leaving no visible trace behind,” ANL wrote. The tests confirmed what the researchers had seen at a New Jersey saltwater research tank earlier this year. The sponge is able to collect oil above and below the water’s surface, and test sponges have been wrung out hundreds of times without apparent wear.
Looking for love
Now, Argonne is looking for a partner to develop the sponge further.
Alex Mitchell, a communications lead for Argonne, told Ars on Tuesday that “Argonne is in discussions with several organizations/entities that have interest in collaborating with Argonne on commercialization, and several seem promising.”
He added that the research that went into developing the sponge was funded by the Department of Energy, so there’s a strong preference to license the technology to a US-based firm. The lab is also doing its due diligence to make sure any potential partner would have the resources to scale the technology up and the means to commercialize the sponge. “[T]here is a considerable gap between a promising lab-scale technology like Oleo Sponge and a scaled-up, commercial-ready product, so that is what the discussion right now revolves around,” Mitchell said.