Aerogel Technology Offers Great Potential For Oil & Chemical Spill Cleanup

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Responding effectively to oil and chemical spills may soon become much easier, based on new findings from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Researchers there have created a relatively environmentally friendly form of aerogel that possesses a number of impressive properties, including the ability to absorb oil and/or chemicals without absorbing water. The new aerogel — which has already been patented — can absorb up to 100 times its own weight in organic solvents, and is reusable as well (for at least a few cycles).

Zheng uses tweezers to hold a sample of the aerogel that has been used to absorb red-dyed diesel fuel (right), while Gong holds a sample of unused aerogel (left). Image Credit: Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin Madison
Zheng uses tweezers to hold a sample of the aerogel that has been used to absorb red-dyed diesel fuel (right), while Gong holds a sample of unused aerogel (left).
Image Credit: Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin Madison

For some background: aerogels are a highly porous, and incredibly light, class of materials currently used for a variety of specialty purposes. Thanks to their unique qualities, they’re used for everything from aerospace construction, to paint thickeners, to insulation, to (possibly now) oil spill cleanup.

This new aerogel is made in a somewhat different and more environmentally friendly way than is typical, though — the process doesn’t rely on solvents, as most other aerogel production processes do; instead, it’s simply (mostly) a matter of freeze-drying.


The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides more:

The aerogel prepared in researcher Shaoqin Gong’s lab is made of (sustainable wood-based materials) and an environmentally friendly polymer.

Treating the cellulose-based aerogel with specific types of silane after it is made through the freeze-drying process is a key step that gives the aerogel its water-repelling and oil-absorbing properties. In addition, this cellulose-based aerogel exhibits excellent flexibility as demonstrated by compression mechanical testing.

“For this material, one unique property is that it has superior absorbing ability for organic solvents — up to nearly 100 times its own weight,” states Gong. “It also has strong absorbing ability for metal ions.”

“So if you had an oil spill, for example, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb the oil very quickly and efficiently,” she continues. “Once it’s fully saturated, you can take it out and squeeze out all the oil. Although its absorbing capacity reduces after each use, it can be reused for a couple of cycles.”

While there is still much more work to be done before this aerogel can be used on a large-scale, the results so far look very promising.

“We are living in a time where pollution is a serious problem — especially for human health and for animals in the ocean,” Gong notes. “We are passionate to develop technology to make a positive societal impact.”

The new research was just published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.


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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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