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article imageNanotechnology provides solution for oil spills

By Tim Sandle     Oct 16, 2016 in Science
Oil spills are very difficult to address and cause significant ecological harm. A new method, based on nanotechnology, can turn an oil spill into a floating mass of brown jelly.
Converting oil in water to a gelatinous mass allows the oil to be cleaned up efficiently. By treating the oil quickly, a significant impact on the food chain can be avoided. Following oil spills, seabirds and fish are at the greatest risk and the impact of these creatures being affected runs through the entire food chain.
Current approaches to dealing with oil spills range from adding grease and setting the slick on fire to using barriers and skimmers to remove the oil. No current method is universally successful. Alternatively, some studies are taking place with oil-digesting bacteria but these have yet to be trailed successfully.
In a new approach the A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (Singapore) has developed molecules with special gelling abilities. These can transform oil into a type of jelly. These so-called “supergelators” work in a matter of minutes.
The process works through the molecules being sprayed onto oil. On impact the molecules become long fibers (‘long’, that is, relative to the nano-scale). The fibers create a web that traps immersed oil into a jelly. This jelly floats on the surface, which facilitates its removal from the water. Tests have been successful with both freshly spilled crude oil and highly weathered crude oil (these have different viscosities and sulfur levels).
In a statement, lead researcher Dr. Yugen Zhang commented: “Nanoscience makes it possible to tailor the essential structures of materials at the nanometer scale to achieve specific properties.”
The researcher explains further: "Structures and materials in the nanometer size range often take on distinctive properties that are not seen in other size ranges.”
The research has been published in the journal Chemistry of Materials. The paper is titled “Instant Room-Temperature Gelation of Crude Oil by Chiral Organogelators.”
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