Can Carbon Nanotubule Sponges Soak Up The Next Oil Spill?

We’ve been carping on this site about the lack of progress in cleaning up an oil spill in the water. The oil industry has been relying on pretty much the same techniques — booms to corral the oil, mechanical skimmers to pick it up off the water, intentional burning of the thickest oil, and chemical dispersants to break it up and sink it — that have been used for decades, with little success and little improvement.

But we’re excited by the recent announcement of what could be a new tool to strengthen our weak cleanup arsenal: researchers have invented small sponges made of carbon nanotubules, a material that shuns water and attracts oil.  They claim these sponges can be squeezed out and re-used multiple times, or incinerated to generate electricity.

We don’t know how much it costs to produce this material.  But we can envision an oil-spill response scenario where air tankers drop loads of these sponges into the thickest parts of the slick.  After a few hours or days of soaking up oil, skimmer vessels towing magnetic booms collect the sponges and scoop them up.  The sponges could be processed at sea to squeeze the oil out with a press or centrifuge, then redeployed to soak up another load.

These sponges might work on slicks too thin to effectively skim or burn, or in high sea-state conditions that usually bring cleanup operations to a grinding halt. This is all just speculation until we can see this new material in action.  We look forward to learning more about it.