Oil spills: The devastating effects and a novel and creative approach to remediating crude oil
Due to the rapidly growing transport and exploitation of crude oil, there is an increasing concern regarding oil spillages. Not only does spilled oil represent a massive loss of energy resources, but it can also cause widespread contamination and pollution in coastal waters. Ranging from the Gulf War oil spill in 1991—which released more than 240 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf—to the more recent BP oil spill in 2010—which leaked about 206 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico—these disasters are generally not uncommon in history. In fact, many oil spills date back to much longer ago, including the Torrey Canyon Oil Spill in 1967.
Like other oil spills, the BP oil spill caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats, as well as to the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries. The largest accidental spill in world history, the BP oil spill caused oil to flow at a rate as high as about 2.5 million gallons a day until the Deepwater Horizon oil well was capped in July 2010. Unfortunately, for more than 85 days, oil gushed from the oil well and killed hundreds of birds and marine life. Although the long-term effects of the oil spillage generally remain unknown, experts believe that it could devastate the Gulf coast for years to come.
Fortunately, millions of gallons of oil were remediated following the devastating disaster, but how? Approximately 32.9 million gallons of oil were naturally dispersed, 51.5 million gallons were evaporated or dissolved, and 6.2 million gallons were skimmed off the Gulf with the use of skimming vessels. Chemical dispersion was also utilized to remediate nearly 16.5 million gallons of oil. However, approximately 53.5 million gallons still remain in the water or have washed ashore.
Is there another possible solution to cleaning up the remains of the oil spill?
Recently, a multi-institutional research team at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a hydrophobic and oleophilic carbon nanotube sponge that can absorb oil from water. So, what’s so special about carbon nanotubes, besides the fact that they repel water and attract oil? In recent decades, these useful materials have captured much scientific attention due to their favorable properties, including their high strength, lightweight, and potential high conductivity. The team selectively substituted boron atoms into the otherwise pure carbon lattice of the carbon nanotubes, allowing for the formation of “elbow” junctions that facilitate the growth of the nanotubes into a 3-D network. As a result, an interconnected, woven sponge-like material is created. According to ORNL’s Bobby Sumpter, who was part of the team responsible for creating this innovative invention, the nanotube sponge is capable of absorbing up to 100 times its weight in oil and can be reused over and over again because it’s so robust. It is no surprise that the sponge is a potential technology to aid in oil spill cleanup, not only because of its mechanical flexibility and strength, but also because of its magnetic properties and feasibility.
In my opinion, the novel carbon nanotube sponge is a groundbreaking approach to cleaning up oil spills in general, and perhaps, it will be implemented in the future. In fact, the experimental team has already submitted a patent application on the technology through Rice University, so the professional use of the nanotube sponge holds significant potential.