Professor Perena Gouma from Stony Brook University in New York has developed a new way to tackle oil spills that is easier and more eco-friendly than conventional approaches. She has developed a “photocatalytic nanogrid” made up of copper tungsten oxide that, once activated by sunlight, can break down oil to leave behind nothing but biodegradable compounds. The device is reusable and portable enough for ships of any size to carry, which makes it an ideal solution for vessels that up until now have been powerless to act.
The nets, which resemble non-woven, miniaturized ceramic fishing nets, are made with a unique self-assembly process that according to Gouma results in a “robust third architecture that allows for the highest surface area, providing maximum exposure to the contaminant to be remediated, while the nanoscale particle sizes enable fast catalytic action.” Apart from oil spills, the grids would be capable of dealing with contaminated water from fracking and other harmful industrial processes.
Beyond environmental cleanup operations, the grids could eventually act as a chemical-free, possibly even water-free, method of cleaning clothes in the future. “The dry cleaning process that we now use involves a lot of contaminants that have to be remediated and treated, such as benzene,” says Gouma. “This could be a dry cleaning substitute that would be more environmentally friendly than current dry cleaning approaches.”
In the fall of 2011, Gouma was the first scientist to receive a $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) award—a public-private partnership program that teaches grantees to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training to faculty and student participants. As a result, Gouma and her team are in the process of creating a startup business with the hope of proving how effective the grids can be in the field, ultimately scaling up production.