Even after several years of Gulf of Mexico disaster, marine life there is still suffering. Thousands of aquatic animals and millions of fishes have died because of oil covering the surface of water. Even though the situation is much less worse than it was earlier, but oil spills are yet to be solved and it will stay like this for several upcoming years.
Oil spills are serious concerns and we don’t have too promising solutions to recover the spilled oil. Using chemicals, skimming, and boons doesn’t work in every condition and are way to costly to do on a bigger scale.
Currently, the traditional method is to prevent oil from spreading using special boons (picture below) and burning the collected oil on the spot. This is the simplest method to get rid of spilled oil but, it comes with multiple side effects which can’t be ignored too.
Burning oil this way causes air pollution, of course, but, it also affects the temperature of oceans and requires still water and lower wind speeds.
Another most used method is using skimmers. Much like one used in swimming pools, skimmers used on ocean surface work quite efficiently too. The only problem is, they require still water which is another headache when you’re dealing with oceans.
In the end, we’re left with Sponges that have proved to be most efficient method to separate oils from both water and land among other methods. Sponges can be left unattended on ocean surface while they do their job. They also act as boons thus, preventing oil from spreading into wider areas.
But, they had a problem too. Traditional sponges used in oil separation are not biodegradable, especially after using them on oils. Disposing them is another hazard to environment.
Now to prevent that, OPFLEX, an America based company is working on sponges that are not just biodegradable but, can selectively absorb only oils and not water while in operation.
I came across their patent while searching for oil spill recovery solutions. The patent describes a lot of, even minor, details about how these sponges can help in recovering oil much efficiently than any other methods.
The new sponges are made using a blend of polyethylene and ethylene-alkyl acrylate copolymer. The reason behind using using ethylene-alkyl acrylate copolymer is its relatively low melting index and density.
Traditional foams have less and less open cells (higher density), which leads to less oil absorption. The new type of sponge can soak up to 33 times more oil than its own weight as compared to 11-13 times absorbed by other type of sponges.
Here’s a part from patent itself testing the new sponge in real world conditions-
As the open-cell foam works as an absorbent, it holds the liquid hydrocarbons even in strong ocean currents. The open-celled foam absorbs approximately 33 times its weight in hydrocarbons without absorbing substantial amounts of water. Oil stays in the foam because of polarity.
After the absorption process the sponges are then squeezed to recover collected oil and returned to water surface to collect more. A single sponge belt can be used upto hundred times before replacing which makes it cost effective too.
Here’s a video from OPFLEX itself
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