This Reusable Sponge Gets Oil Out Of Water Without Harming The Planet

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May. 24 2019, Updated 7:55 a.m. ET

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during 2010 was one of the worst environmental accidents in recent history and harmed over 100,000 marine wildlife. While massive oil spills don’t happen every year, smaller oil incidents still occur daily at varying scales. 

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When they occur, they spell disaster for oceans and the creatures that live inside of them. For businesses, oil leaks or spills signal a tremendous loss of money in not only the product itself but for expensive cleanup efforts. It’s a mess no one wants. 

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Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory devised a new technology to offer a cleanup solution that benefits everyone. The Oleo Sponge recovers oil and other petroleum products from water in a way that is easily adaptable. That's right: A sponge that literally removes oil from water.

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How does this work? The Oleo Sponge, which looks like a seat cushion, is made out of a unique absorbent foam that loves oil and isn’t so into water. This oil-attracting and water-repelling feature helps the material efficiently pull oil from water. For perspective, during the cleanup process, the sponge can take in up to 90 times its own weight in oil. 

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This sponge sets itself apart from most other absorbent sponges because the product minimizes waste in two ways. First, the Oleo Sponge can be wrung out and reused over and over again. Many sorbent technologies become saturated, and then both the sponge and oil go in the trash. Secondly, the oil that is wrung out can be salvaged for future use. This feature incentivizes businesses to clean up the mess more thoroughly because it helps mitigate financial losses. 

The most distinguishing feature of this new sponge is that it’s the first of its kind that can also grab oil under the water’s surface. When major oil spills occur, oil doesn’t always stick to the top of the water. Oil can drift below the surface and become difficult to capture. Other sponges and methods have a difficult time capturing oil under the surface. 

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While the technique of skimming allows for some oil recovery, it can’t grab oil under the water and is more limited because it can only be used when the water is calm and when there is a thick layer of the oil on top of the surface. Burning the oil is another go-to method, but that doesn’t recover any of the oil and releases a significant amount of toxins into the environment.  

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The Oleo Sponge is an environmentally friendly option since it not only retrieves the oil in hard to reach places, but it does so without harming people or the environment.  

According to the University of Chicago, the team behind this invention is now working on adapting the technology to other cleanups, not just oil in water. This sponge can also be adapted to regularly control chronic contamination in harbors and ports

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