Two years after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, restoration efforts are still underway. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion refers to the April 20, 2010 explosion and subsequent fire on the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU), which was owned and operated by Transocean and drilling for BP in the Macondo Prospect oil field about 40 miles (60 km) southeast of the Louisiana coast, as per Wikipedia. The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 16 others; another 99 people survived without serious physical injury. It caused the Deepwater Horizon to burn and sink, and started a massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This environmental disaster is now considered the second largest in U.S. history. At the time of the accident, scientists struggled with a solution to contain oil in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed animal and plant life and took a terrible toll on many industries. The explosion dumped more than 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before engineers were able to cap the leak three months later. This spill affected the underwater ecosystem in the Gulf, and also the lives of many individuals who relied on the body of water for a living.

Scientist have invented a new super-absorbent material that can soak-up 40 times its weight in oil and contain it. This allows for the clean-up of water, but also preserves the oil for harvesting. The absorbent material can be sent to an oil refinery, where the oil is extracted. The new material – thermodegradable polyolefin oil super-absorbent – swells as it absorbs oil. Just one pound of the polymer can recover approximately five gallons of crude oil, which can be transported safely and easily with the gel’s high strength. This oil is then converted to a liquid and refined with the same process as basic crude oil. From an economic perspective, the device is highly valuable, since it increases the usability and thus, the profitability, of the oil through this conversion process. For example, the oil before conversion would be worth just US$15, while crude oil sells at approximately US$100 per barrel. The primary goal and the most important result of this innovation is the environmental impact it will have on limiting the detrimental effects of oil spills all over the world.

Researchers in China have made a new type of membrane that can separate oil from water and could potentially be used in oil spills, as per The membrane works by interacting differently with the substances as it is both superhydrophobic and superoleophilic, so that it repels water but attracts oil. This means that the oil is absorbed through the membrane, but the water cannot penetrate. The membrane is made from a polymerised fluorinated polybenzoxazine (F-PBZ) layer on top of cellulose acetate nanofibres. The scientists used an electrospinning technique (in which a viscous liquid is passed through a conducting needle to form a thread) to create a porous structure that makes the membrane even better at absorbing the oil. Bin Ding from Donghua University leads the team that developed this technology. He explains that one of the best things about their membranes is that they are stable and can be used over a wide pH range, making them suitable for use in a variety of challenging environments. The complex surface of the membrane gives it a surface area of 58.96 m2/g. Ding comments that ‘currently, there are no other membranes with such a high surface area for oil spill clean-up’. John Howarter, an expert in polymer membranes from Purdue University, US, thinks this research is a significant achievement. ‘The performance of their materials is remarkable with the extreme contact angle difference between the oil (at 3 degrees) and water (161 degrees). Technology such as this is useful for dealing with large scale environmental problems, but could also be used in a manufacturing setting.’ Ding’s team’s use of simple techniques will make it possible for them to produce their membranes on a larger, industrial sized, scale in the future, but first they will be improving the structure of the membranes to fine tune their performance. They are also working on other F-PBZ hybrid fibrous membranes to see what else they can do with them.