Oil Spill Cleanup

Most have heard the phrase “fight fire with fire,” which is generally taken to mean using the same tactics as your attacker. Although perhaps a stretch, attacking oil spills with carbon may be an equivalent concept, or at least one can so infer from a recent paper.

Carbon nanotubes are members of the fullerene family and, like graphite and diamond, are allotropes of elemental carbon. Nanotubes are extremely stiff and strong and have found many uses in sports equipment, automobile parts, solar cells, and other applications.

Hashim et al. were exploring ways to chemically connect nanotubes together into larger structures by doping them with foreign atoms that would form a juncture site. They chanced on boron and found to their delight that periodic table element 5 encouraged the formation of “elbows” in large arrays of interconnected nanotubes. The work is important in its own right because it verifies theoretical predictions that macro-scale three-dimensional superstructures composed of nanotubes are possible.

The work is also important because the new material can form highly porous, highly hydrophobic, sponge-like objects. The stuff readily absorbs alcohols and oils and the paper is accompanied by a remarkable movie showing a small sponge extinguishing an oil slick from sea water in a petri dish. Amazingly, the nanotube sponge can be directed by a magnetic field and thus recovered from the environment. Best of all, the oil can be removed from the sponge either by wringing it out or by burning. In both cases the original carbon nanotube sponge is unharmed and thus reusable.

It may be awhile before industrial level application of this technology is feasible. It’s heartening, though, to think that science may help us avoid the awful scenes of devastation that accompany the petroleum spills that seem to be an inevitable consequence of modern life.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Nano vs. Oil [Periodic Tabloid]
Episode 2: Cleaning Up [Distillations]
Nanosponge Can Absorb 100 Times Its Weight in Oil [Plugged In]

Posted In: Technology

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