Scientists use nanotechnology to prevent oil spill disaster



Since 2010’s tragic events, which saw BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster desecrate the Gulf of Mexico, oil safety has been on the forefront of the environmental debate and media outrage. 

In line with the mounting concerns continuing to pique public attention, at the end of this month, Hollywood will release its own biopic of the event. As can be expected, more questions will be raised about what exactly went wrong, in addition to fresh criticism aimed at the entire industry.

One question that is likely to emerge is how do we prevent such a calamity from ever happening again? Fortunately, some of the brightest minds in science have been preparing for such an answer.

One team that has been focusing on this dilemma is Alberta-based, multi-disciplinary research initiative Ingenuity Lab. The institution has just secured $1.7m in project funding for developing a highly advanced system for recovering oil from oil spills. This injection of capital will enable Ingenuity Lab to conduct new research and develop commercial production processes for recovering heavy oil spills in marine environments. 


The technology is centred on cutting edge nanowire-based stimuli-responsive membranes and devices that are capable for recovering oil.

Oil is a common pollutant in our oceans; more than three million metric tonnes contaminate the sea each year. When crude oil is accidentally released into a body of water by an oil tanker, refinery, storage facility, underwater pipeline or offshore oil-drilling rig, it is an environmental emergency of the most urgent kind.

Depending on the location, oil spills can be highly hazardous, as well as environmentally destructive. Consequently, a timely clean up is absolutely crucial in order to protect the integrity of the water, the shoreline and the numerous creatures that depend on these habitats.

Due to increased scrutiny of the oil industry with regard to its unseemly environmental track record, attention must be focused on the development of new materials and technologies for removing organic contaminants from waterways. Simply put, existing methods are not sufficiently robust.

Fortuitously, however, nanotechnology has opened the door for the development of sophisticated new tools that use specifically designed materials with properties that are ideally suited to enable complex separations, including the separation of crude oil from water.

Ingenuity Lab’s project focuses on the efficient recovery of oil through the development of this novel technology using a variety of stimuli-responsive nanomaterials. 

When the time comes for scale up production for this technology, Ingenuity Lab will work closely with industry trendsetters, Tortech Nanofibers.

Source: Ingenuity Lab

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“Great Things from Small Things”

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Ohio State: Nano-Mesh Could Clean Oil Spills for Less than $1 per square Foot


Oil Spills Ohio State 150415090028-largeThe unassuming piece of stainless steel mesh in a lab at The Ohio State University doesn’t look like a very big deal, but it could make a big difference for future environmental cleanups.


In tests, researchers mixed water with oil and poured the mixture onto the mesh. The water filtered through the mesh to land in a beaker below. The oil collected on top of the mesh, and rolled off easily into a separate beaker when the mesh was tilted.

The mesh coating is among a suite of nature-inspired nanotechnologies under development at Ohio State and described in two papers in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Potential applications range from cleaning oil spills to tracking oil deposits underground.

“If you scale this up, you could potentially catch an oil spill with a net,” said Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State.

Oil Spills Ohio State 150415090028-large

This mesh captures oil (red) while water (blue) passes through.
Credit: Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of The Ohio State University

The work was partly inspired by lotus leaves, whose bumpy surfaces naturally repel water but not oil. To create a coating that did the opposite, Bhushan and postdoctoral researcher Philip Brown chose to cover a bumpy surface with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant — the stuff that gives cleaning power to soap and detergent.

They sprayed a fine dusting of silica nanoparticles onto the stainless steel mesh to create a randomly bumpy surface and layered the polymer and surfactant on top.

The silica, surfactant, polymer, and stainless steel are all non-toxic and relatively inexpensive, said Brown. He estimated that a larger mesh net could be created for less than a dollar per square foot.

Because the coating is only a few hundred nanometers (billionths of a meter) thick, it is mostly undetectable. To the touch, the coated mesh doesn’t feel any bumpier than uncoated mesh. The coated mesh is a little less shiny, though, because the coating is only 70 percent transparent.

The researchers chose silica in part because it is an ingredient in glass, and they wanted to explore this technology’s potential for creating smudge-free glass coatings. At 70 percent transparency, the coating could work for certain automotive glass applications, such as mirrors, but not most windows or smartphone surfaces.

“Our goal is to reach a transparency in the 90-percent range,” Bhushan said. “In all our coatings, different combinations of ingredients in the layers yield different properties. The trick is to select the right layers.”

He explained that certain combinations of layers yield nanoparticles that bind to oil instead of repelling it. Such particles could be used to detect oil underground or aid removal in the case of oil spills.

The shape of the nanostructures plays a role, as well. In another project, research assistant Dave Maharaj is investigating what happens when a surface is made of nanotubes. Rather than silica, he experiments with molybdenum disulfide nanotubes, which mix well with oil. The nanotubes are approximately a thousand times smaller than a human hair.

Maharaj measured the friction on the surface of the nanotubes, and compressed them to test how they would hold up under pressure.

“There are natural defects in the structure of the nanotubes,” he said. “And under high loads, the defects cause the layers of the tubes to peel apart and create a slippery surface, which greatly reduces friction.”

Bhushan envisions that the molybdenum compound’s compatibility with oil, coupled with its ability to reduce friction, would make it a good additive for liquid lubricants. In addition, for micro- and nanoscale devices, commercial oils may be too sticky to allow for their efficient operation. Here, he suspects that the molybdenum nanotubes alone could be used to reduce friction.

This work began more than 10 years ago, when Bhushan began building and patenting nano-structured coatings that mimic the texture of the lotus leaf. From there, he and his team have worked to amplify the effect and tailor it for different situations.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” Bhushan said. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.”

“Nature reaches a limit of what it can do,” agreed Brown. “To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”

This work was partly funded by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, the National Science Foundation, and Dexerials Corporation (formerly a chemical division of Sony Corp.) in Japan.


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The above story is based on materials provided by Ohio State University.