Oil spills are a messy business, but a patent is in the works for a new cleanup solution--the carbon nanotube.
Nanotubes are made out of sheets of carbon, one atom thick, which are rolled into tubes the size of baby carrots.
Nanotubes are water repellent, but act as super efficient oil sponges. Each nanotube can absorb up to 100 times its weight in oil. And here’s the kicker: the nanotubes are reusable--you can squeeze or burn the oil out of the sponges without inhibiting their ability to absorb more oil. This offers exciting possibilities for cleaning up oil spills, but thus far the testing has been limited to supercomputer simulations.
Some oil spill cleanup methods, like the toxic dispersant used in the BP spill, persist in the environment and cause their own problems. But these tiny sponges are magnetic, which the scientists hope will makes them easier to move and remove from the ocean.
While nanotubes have been made for decades, scientists have struggled to control the nanotubes’ growth and dispersal. But scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have recently added an essential twist.
The scientists inserted boron atoms into the mix. Since boron has a different number of valence electrons, it changes the structure of the carbon-based lattice. The boron encouraged more elbow joints to form, creating a 3-dimensional structure, which makes the nanotubes stronger and more flexible...and more efficient at removing oil from ocean waters.
The results of the study were published in the journal Nature last week.