Oil spills have had an extensive history of disrupting the environment, killing ecosystems, and displacing families. Impacts of massive oil spills are still felt in many parts of the world, including the undersea spill at the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that dumped an approximate 39 million gallons of oil into the gulf.
But what if these devastating oil spills could be easily cleaned up with a piece of fabric rooted in electrochemistry?
That may be a reality soon thanks to researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). According to a release, the QUT researchers have developed a multipurpose fabric covered with semi-conducting nanostructures that can both mop up oil and degrade organic matter when exposed to light.
The fabric, which repels water and attracts oil, has already has promising preliminary results. In the early stages of research, the scientists have already been able to mop up crude oil from the surface of both fresh and salt water.
“All steps in its production are easy to carry out and, in principle, production of this fabric could be scaled up to be used on massive oil spills that threaten land and marine ecosystems,” said Anthony O’Mullane, associate professor at QUT. “On a large scale the material could mop up crude oil to saturation point and then be washed with common organic solvent and reused.”
For this study, the researchers used nylon (with a layer of silver already woven in) and electrochemically deposited a copper layer on to it. By adding another solution that allows nanostructures to grow on the fabric’s surface, the researchers converted the simple fabric into a semiconducting material.
“The nanostructures are like tiny rods that cover the surface of the fabric. Water just runs straight off it but the rods attract and hold oil,” O’Mullane said. “Also, when the fabric is saturated it allows the oil to permeate where it then acts like a sieve to separate oil and water.”