The Latest Solution For Cleaning Up Oil Spills? It’s A Sponge

But you won’t find this in your average kitchen.

Oil spills are catastrophic for marine environments, especially if they’re not cleaned up quickly. That can be difficult when a spill occurs in the middle of the ocean and crews can’t reach the area until hours after the oil has started to spread and sink deeper into the water. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory have engineered a new material called the Oleo Sponge that uses foam and oil-absorbing molecules to soak up oil both on and below the water’s surface–and after the sponge is wrung out, both the sponge and the recovered oil can be reused.


Traditional techniques of burning or skimming oil only work when it is concentrated on the surface of the water. But in severe cases, like the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, scientists found that the oil was collecting in a plume below the surface, where it was difficult to remove. The Oleo Sponge could make quick work of oil under the surface as well, making it an asset in any conservationist’s arsenal.

The sponge combines of polyurethane foam, which is used in furniture cushions and insulation (in fact, it looks something like a seat cushion), with a metal oxide primer and molecules that grab onto oil. The primary innovation here is the use of the metal oxide, which attaches the oil-absorbing molecules to the foam. In the future, other molecules that absorb different kinds of polluting substances could be attached to aid in other kinds of cleanup.

The scientists ran hundreds of tests on the material in a giant seawater tank at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey, successfully collecting diesel and crude oil from on and below the surface of the water. The material is particularly sturdy–one scientist who worked on the project says that the sponge didn’t break down at all during testing–which means it could theoretically be used again and again on a cleanup site, making it a low-waste way to remove oil from water. Meanwhile, the fact that the oil can be recovered after could motivate oil companies to clean up their messes with the material.

The Oleo sponge could have a serious impact on oil spill clean up, but it could also be used in more routine situations–like cleaning the water in ports, where heavy shipping traffic results in polluted water. Who knew a little sponge could be so powerful.

[Photos: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory]

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.