Makers of the Oleo Sponge — a patent-pending material that might one day be used to absorb oil from oil spills — tested the material off the Southern California coastline in recent months where it successfully proved its effectiveness.

The sponge, which was created at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, was tested in a setting meant to mimic a real-world oil spill.

"This technology is so important because, despite the industry's best intentions, oil spills continue to happen, and existing cleanup methods are surprisingly inadequate," said co-inventor Seth Darling, director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering at Argonne.

Using common polyurethane foam — the kind often found in furniture cushions — the team enlisted the help of Argonne chemist Jeff Elam to develop a method called sequential infiltration synthesis to insert metal oxides within polymeric materials. As such, Elam managed to adapt the method to grow a thin layer of metal oxide “primer” close to the foam’s surface where it could bind molecules and thus capture oil.

To work, the Oleo Sponge is submerged in the water and then wrung out. The oil residue wrung from the Oleo Sponge is then collected in containers for the purpose of either reuse or safe disposal. Once the oil is wrung from the sponge, the sponge can be used again and again.

Although already tested in the lab, the team wanted to measure the sponge’s ability to absorb oil sheen — a layer of oil about one micron thick — from the surface of the ocean. Once applied, the Oleo Sponge successfully removed the sheen, leaving no trace of the oil behind.

"I was thrilled to see how well it performed," said Darling. "Oil sheen has always been a frustrating challenge for oil spill responders, with no good cleanup option available to date."

To see how the sponge performed, watch the accompanying video, which is courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

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