March 8, 2014 – For several years I worked with an Australian company developing a new skimmer technology for remediating oil spills. That got me very interested in this subject area. So I keep my eyes open for new technological innovations that can address what remains an industry-wide problem for fossil fuel and transportation providers.
A researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Shaoqin Gong, along with two graduate students of the USDA Forest Products Laboratory recently announced that they had developed an aerogel that attracts oil absorbing up to 100 times its own weight. A sheet of aerogel cast on oil-filled surface water could conceivably clean up a spill quite rapidly. And better yet, once the aerogel becomes oil saturated it can be lifted out of the water and squeezed to recover the spilled oil. It’s good for a couple of cleanups before it needs to be replaced.
Aerogels are among the lightest materials in existence. They are highly porous. Today they are used for insulation, in aerospace construction, and as thickening agents in paints. The aerogel created by the University of Wisconsin team using a freeze-dry process is made from wood nano-fibers and a polymer that is described as environmentally friendly. The aerogel is further treated with silane, an inorganic compound, which gives it enhanced water-repelling, oil-absorbing capability. The aerogel displays extraordinary flexibility making it easy to store and deploy. If it can be brought from the laboratory to commercial production this may prove to be required equipment on board ships, in marinas, and on seaborne and land-based oil rigs and platforms.