A slick solution to oil spills

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When major oil spills happen, like the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster caused by an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, the world somewhat helplessly watches on as the environmental ecosystem is devastated.

But an effective solution to significantly reduce the impact of oil spill catastrophes may have just been discovered. Deakin University scientists have manufactured a super-absorbent material called a boron nitride nanosheet, being described as the most exciting advancement in oil spill clean-up technology in decades.

Project team leader, Professor Ying (Ian) Chen and Institute for Frontier Materials scientist, Dr Weiwei Lei, explain why a solution is needed, how this material works and why it’s more effective than previous oil spill clean-up methods.

Why is a solution to oil spills needed?

While we only tend to hear about the large scale disasters, oil spills are more common than you may think, costing billions of dollars and damaging the environment.

‘Here in Australia (oil spills) are a regular problem, and not just in our waters. Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, amounting to large economic losses,’ says Prof. Chen.

Dr Lei adds, ‘Environmental protection is a globally important issue especially with so many reports of oil spillage and contaminated rivers by industry.’

'Here in Australia (oil spills) are a regular problem, and not just in our waters. Oil spills from trucks and other vehicles can close freeways for an entire day, amounting to large economic losses.'

Professor Ying (Ian) Chen,
Institute for Frontier Materials, Deakin University

How does this new material work?

The nanosheets literally absorb oils, solvents and dyes like a sponge, whether on land or at sea. Prof. Chen says the absorption takes only about 20 minutes and once a sponge layer fills up, it would be collected and replaced with a new sponge until all the pollutant is collected.

‘The nanosheets are made of a few layers of boron nitride atomic planes, and these sheets have a large number of holes,’ Dr Lei explains. ‘It’s these holes that increase the surface area of the nanosheets to a huge 1400 m2 per gram. This means one gram of porous boron nitride nanosheet has the same surface area as nearly 3.3 basketball courts – so plenty of surface for absorption. The nanostructured material absorbs oils and organic solvents up to 33 times its own weight.’

How is this different to other oil spill recovery methods?

Until now, there has been no silver bullet for effectively cleaning up oil spills.

‘Current methods of cleaning up oil spills are inefficient and unsophisticated, take too long, and cause ongoing and expensive damage’, says Prof. Chen.

Dr Lei adds, ‘Conventional methods used to solve spillages today include combustion, mechanical collection, chemical dispersants, bioremediation and sorbent materials. But common absorbents tend to suffer from environmental incompatibility, low separation selectivity and low absorption capacity. Besides high absorbent capabilities, the porous nanosheets are light weight and hydrophobic, they can float on water and repel water, and thus ease separation from cleaned water.’

Additionally, the nanosheets do not burn and can be easily cleaned for re-use.

Where to from here?

After two years of refinement in the laboratory at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, the nanosheet is now ready to be trialled by industry. If all goes as expected, the material’s use in the real world isn’t too far away either.

‘Large-scale application requires large quantities of the material. After successful testing, we will be looking at scaling up the current process for industrial scale manufacturing, which will take two to three years,’ says Dr Lei.

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Professor Ying (Ian) Chen
Professor Ying (Ian) Chen

Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Nanotechnology, Deakin University
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Dr Weiwei Lei
Dr Weiwei Lei

Research Fellow, Institute for Frontier Minerals, Deakin University
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