Cleaning up after oil spills
Oil spills can occur in oceans, rivers, bays, and other water bodies. They're often caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs, storage facilities and recreational boats.
Oil spills can cause significant environmental damage, especially to marine wildlife.
Even after an oil spill is cleaned up, crude oil remains in the sea water as small droplets. And even at these low oil concentrations, the water is still environmentally unsafe. The water has to be treated on shore, but this is costly and can take a long time.
There is a need for new approaches to cleaning up spilled oil. We need to need to quickly separate and remove the oil from the seawater, including oil at very low concentrations. The Government of Canada funded CSIRO scientists to create new oil spill response technology.
New oil spill response technology
CSIRO has developed new oil spill response technology that focuses on removing these droplets.
First, we take a typical domestic sponge.
We coat the sponge with a special polystyrene-based polymer.
The polymer layer coating the sponge is 'superhydrophobic'. That means it’s extremely repellent of water. But it's very efficient at separating oil from water emulsions: the oil soaks into the sponge and the water wicks away.
The sponge material is cheap and scalable. It can also be easily recycled and reused after it’s been mechanically compressed.
Best of all, our technology can be used after the bulk of the oil is removed (the 'skimming operation'). This is when there the oil is at extremely low – but still environmentally harmful – concentration in the water. The hydrophobic sponges can separate oil from water even with extremely low concentrations: lower than 1000 ppm.
Larger scale trials on the horizon
Our new technology allows oil spills to be cleaned at sea. This is a cheaper, faster way to treat oil spills, ultimately helping reduce the impact on our marine life.
The team is now scaling the synthesis of the materials and carrying out larger scale trials with the ultimate goal of large scale deployment.