After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, we’ve been on the look out for new technologies that could help clean up similar disasters. With that in mind, we were intrigued by the news that Rice University and Penn State University researchers have developed a new type of nanosponge blocks that are capable of repeatedly absorbing spilled oil from water.

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The team, led by Daniel Hashim, published their discovery in Nature’s online open-access journal Scientific Reports. In the report, they relayed that by adding boron to carbon when they were creating nanotubes, they coincidently created “solid, spongy, reusable blocks”.

It seems that the boron puts edges and angles into the nanotubes as they grow, creating covalent bonds that makes the sponges extremely robust. The blocks are also super-hydrophobic (which means they float) and oleophilic (they love oil). An added bonus is that they are 99% air, allowing electricity to flow through them so they can be controlled with magnets.

In an experiment (which you can watch below), Hashim used the sponge block to absorb oil from a dish of water. He then burnt the oil off the sponge with a match before re-using it to absorb more oil. It can be used more repeatedly with Hashim saying “a sample remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab. The sponge can also store the oil for later retrieval.”

“These samples can be made pretty large and can be easily scaled up,” said Hashim in a press statement. “They’re super-low density, so the available volume is large. That’s why the uptake of oil can be so high.”

It is estimated the sponges could absorb more than a hundred times their weight in oil which would make them ideal for cleaning up future oil spills.

“Oil-spill remediation and environmental cleanup are just the beginning of how useful these new nanotube materials could be,” co-author Mauricio Terrones added. “For example, we could use these materials to make more efficient and lighter batteries. We could use them as scaffolds for bone-tissue regeneration. We even could impregnate the nanotube sponge with polymers to fabricate robust and light composites for the automobile and plane industries.”

+ Rice University