Call it a super sponge or a magic product – scientists from Deakin University in Australia have created a material that potentially cleans up oil spills. This discovery is promoted beneficial in disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast, which massively hit the environment and cost about $40 billion in damages.

The material, said to absorb oil like how a sponge does, will not be on its trial phase after two years of laboratory work.

“Oil spills are a global problem and wreak havoc on our aquatic ecosystems, not to mention cost billions of dollars in damage,” said Professor Ying Chen, lead author of the study published Nov. 30 in the journal Nature Communications.

He said the Gulf Coast disaster in 2010 that rocked the world is “a regular problem” in Australia not just in waters, but also in freeways affected by oil spill from vehicles such as trucks. These translate to staggering economic losses, Chen added.

According to him, current oil spill cleanup methods are inefficient, unsophisticated, time-consuming, and causes costly, ongoing damage. This prompted the Australian Research Council to support the initiative.

The first stage of producing the material involved a powder form, which also has absorption abilities. But the powder needed to be bound into a sponge to get the oil soaked up and separate it from water.

According to Dr. Weiwei Lei, lead author of the paper, this was a major challenge they addressed through utilizing a new production method: using a boron nitride nanosheet composed of nanometers-thick flakes with small holes.

“[These holes] can increase its surface area per gram to effectively the size of 5.5 tennis courts,” Dr. Lei explained, with the team breaking “white graphite” or boron nitride powder into atomically thin sheets used to create the sponge.

The nanostructured material is said to absorb oils and organic solvents of up to 33 times its weight. In addition, the nanosheets are flame-resistant, making it an ideal substance for transporting oil and other volatile chemicals.

Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Professor Vadym Mochalin said the boron nitride sheets could transform into ultra-light porous membranes and aerogels for oil spill cleanup. He highlighted the team’s use of computation modelling to better understand the details of the novel process.

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