The Oleo Sponge material, developed at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), could eventually be used to help clean up oil spills, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster seven years ago that spewed millions of barrels of oil onto the shorelines of several American states for nearly three months.
The sponge is made of a polyurethane foam, like that used in mattresses. The foam’s interior surfaces are covered with oleophilic (oil-attracted) molecules that draw oil from the water.
In earlier research Seth Darling, a scientist with Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials, and ANL chemist Jeff Elam developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS), which infuses hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures.
The pair adapted the technique to grow a very thin layer of metal oxide primer close to the foam’s interior surfaces. This helped glue the molecules, which hold onto the metal oxide layer with one end and grab oil molecules with the other.
The material can be wrung out in order to be reused.