Oil spills could be soaked up by a new floating substance that combines waste from the petroleum industry and cooking oil, according to new research led by South Australia’s Flinders University.
The new polymer, made from sulphur and canola cooking oil, acted like a sponge to remove crude oil and diesel from seawater, according to a new study published in the Advanced Sustainable Systems journal. The polymer can be squeezed to remove the oil and then reused.
The lead researcher, Dr Justin Chalker, said it had the potential to be a cheap and sustainable recovery tool in areas affected by oil spills.
“We anticipate that when we get to economies of scale we will be able to compete in price with other materials that are used to soak up oil,” said Chalker, senior lecturer in synthetic chemistry at Flinders University.
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“Our goal is for this to be used globally. It is inexpensive, and we have an eye for it to be used in parts of the world such as the Amazon Basin in Ecuador and the Niger Delta that don’t have access to solutions to oil spills.”
The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation says about 7,000 tonnes of crude oil were spilt into oceans last year.
The BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which released 4.9m barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, prompted new research efforts but large spills continue. The Indonesian port city of Balikpapan, part of the island of Borneo, declared a state of emergency after a spill along the coast earlier this month.
BP plan to drill in Great Australian Bight risked 750km oil spill, documents show
The Flinders University research is just six months ago but Chalker said the new polymer had the potential to be less expensive and more sustainable than current clean-up tools such as polypropylene fibres and polyurethane foam.
Both cooking oil and sulphur are hydrophobic – that is, they do not interact with water. The research team found the polymer created by combining the two not only absorbed oil but turned it into a gel.
“We actually didn’t expect the aggregation effect,” Chalker said. “It’s one of the interesting things that came from working in the laboratory.”
He said the researchers were working with engineers and government agencies in an attempt to manufacture the product on a larger scale, with a goal of field-testing it over the next year.
The Flinders University research is a joint project with scientists from Portugal’s Institute of Molecular Medicine and Cambridge University.