Nanotechnology provides the way to clean up oceanic oil spills

Nanotechnology provides the way to clean up oceanic oil spills

This week, we found a very promising article ‘Nanotechnology providing the tools to clean up oil spills’ that can help our oceans.

Oceanic oil spills are quite hard to clean up. Oil harmfully affects the sea creatures and the more turbulent the waters, the farther the oil slick spreads.

Now nanotechnology brings a solution. Researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) are using nano science to turn an oil spill into a floating mass of brown jelly that can be scooped up before the oil can make its way into the food chain.

“Nanoscience makes it possible to tailor the essential structures of materials at the nanometer scale to achieve specific properties,” says chemist Yugen Zhang at IBN, who is developing some of the technologies. “Structures and materials in the nanometer size range often take on distinctive properties that are not seen in other size ranges,” adds Huaqiang Zeng, another chemist at IBN.

The article writes that at present, there are many approaches to cleaning up an oil spill, however none are completely effective. Fresh, thick grease can be set ablaze or contained by floating barriers for skimmers to scoop out. The slick can also be inefficiently hardened, absorbed messily, hazardously dispersed, or slowly consumed by oil-grazing bacteria. All of these methods are ineffective on a large scale, especially in rough oceanic waters.

So here is the new effective solution. Organic molecules with special gelling abilities offer a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to clean the oil up and rescue the ocean. Zeng has developed several such molecules that turn crude oil into jelly within minutes.

To create his ‘supergelators’, Zeng designed the molecules to associate with each other while not form a physical bond. When the supergelator is sprayed on to contaminated seawater, the molecules immediately bundle into long fibres between 40 and 800 nanometers wide. These threads create a web that traps the spilled oil in a giant blob that floats on the water’s surface. This solidified oil then can be swiftly sieved out of the ocean. Another good point to this is that valuable crude oil can later be reclaimed using fractional distillation.

The article writes that Zeng tested the supergelators on four types of crude oil with different densities, viscosities and sulfur levels in a small round dish. The results were quite impressive. ‘The supergelators solidified both freshly spilled crude oil and highly weathered crude oil 37 to 60 times their own weight,’ said Zeng. The materials used to produce these organic molecules are cheap and non-toxic, which makes them a commercially viable solution for managing accidents out at sea.

To read the full article, click here.

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