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Biodegradable Sponge Made of Wood Fiber Cleans Up Oil Spills

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nanocellulosespongesEveryone most probably remembers the BP oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010. The disaster was tremendous. Thousands of people were involved in the cleaning process that took three months to complete.

Workers were exposed to numerous chemicals, risking their lives to save whatever remains from the tanker and the marine environment. Now imagine there was a technology that could soak up all deadly pollutants, without further damaging the environment even a little bit. Thanks to a team of Swiss scientist, this might become a real possibility. The guys invented a sponge made of cellulose waste that soaks up oil right up.

Te study that appeared in the journal Chemistry of Materials earlier this week, reveals the secret behind the miracle invention. The sponge is very light in weight, flexible and it is made of recycled cellulose waste. The idea for it came as the scientists from the famous Swiss Empa research group looked for a way to make a product that absorbs more oil then water, once placed in the oil spill.

For this purpose, they had to chemically modify the commonly known nanofibrillated cellulose (NFC) derived from wood waste and discarded paper, by adding water, turning the mix into a pulp, and then into a gel that is frozen. A crucial step before placing the gel into the deep freeze, however, is the addition of a reactive alkoxysilane molecule, which makes the sponge loose its water-absorbing qualities.

The sponge has currently only been tested in the lab. Although there is no guarantee that the technology would work in the field or on a larger scale, the initial lab results are very promising. The sponge was able to soak up various types of oil, acetone and chloroform, and still remain floating on the surface of the water sample. What is more, it is 100% biodegradable, hence it is easy to remove and environmentally friendly.

Now, the only thing remaining for the team to do is to find a partner and proceed with large scale commercial development.

Image (c) Empa

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