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Looking Closer: New Nanostructure Fabric Mops Ocean Oil Spills

Posted on May 19th, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

April 20th marked the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 crew members onboard the offshore drilling rig and caused the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Close to five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of three months, with disastrous economic, environmental, and social consequences.

Marine oil spills are some of the most catastrophic pollution events, spreading for hundreds of nautical miles in thin oil slicks which can cover ocean surfaces and coastlines with a destructive coating. Cleanup is often difficult, taking anywhere from weeks to years, and full recovery from the profound effects of the spill may take decades. Even small spills at the wrong time or season, in particularly sensitive environments, or in remote areas, may prove to be terribly destructive.

Although there have been substantial policy changes to prevent oil spills, as well as technological improvements to reduce their occurrence, they unfortunately remain possible as long as oil is extracted from below the ocean floor or transported by sea. Therefore, the development of effective cleanup methods is crucial. During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, multiple approaches were employed, including skimming the floating oil, controlled burning, and use of chemical dispersants and oil-absorbing pom-poms. Despite all these efforts, the U.S. Coast Guard stated four years after the spill that a lot of recovery work was still remaining, both on re-oiling events on previously cleaned coastline segments, and on new oiling discoveries.

Now, a team of researchers from Queensland University of Technology in Australia has developed what may constitute a more efficient way of removing marine oil spills: a new multipurpose fabric that can function as a mop over the ocean surface, removing the oil slick without absorbing water.

The methodology to produce this fabric, which has been published in the April issue of ChemPlusChem, consists of covering a conventional textile in a layer of semiconducting nanostructures shaped like rods, which are highly hydrophobic and can trap oil and other organic pollutants, while water runs straight off. The resulting fabric is highly effective separating organic solvents and oils from fresh or salt water. On a large scale, it could mop up crude oil to saturation point and then be reused after washing with a common organic solvent.

Associate Professor Anthony O’Mullane, leading author of the paper, says that the chemistry behind the production of the new fabric was not complex.  The team used commercially available nylon that already had a seed layer of silver woven into it, which facilitated the subsequent step, although in principle any other textile could work. They then dipped this fabric into a vat where a copper layer was electrochemically deposited, and finally converted the fabric into a semiconducting material with the addition of another solution that caused nanostructures to grow on its surface.

Ultimately, a major requirement of any material used for marine oil cleanup applications is stability under wide-ranging environmental conditions. The Australian team will next test the scalability of their approach and the ability of their fabric, which has already been proven to be chemically robust, to withstand tough weather conditions.

And because the new material is multifunctional, it has an exciting potential to perform multiple roles. As professor O’Mullane indicates, the antibacterial properties arising from the presence of copper could be used to kill germs while also separating water from industrial waste in waterways, or to decontaminate water in remote and poor communities where water contamination is an issue. And because the material is also a semi-conductor, it can interact with visible light to degrade organic pollutants such as those found in waste water streams.

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