A team of scientists, led by NTU Singapore and Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, has created a reusable, biodegradable sponge that can readily soak up oil and other organic solvents from contaminated water sources.
Made of sunflower pollen, the sponge is hydrophobic – it repels water – thanks to a coat of natural fatty acid on the sponge. In lab experiments, the scientists showed the sponge’s ability to absorb oil contaminants of various densities, such as gasoline and motor oil, at a rate comparable to that of commercial oil absorbents.
Oil spills are difficult to clean up, and result in severe long-lasting damage to the marine ecosystem. Conventional clean-up methods, including using chemical dispersants to break oil down into very small droplets, or absorbing it with expensive, unrecyclable materials, may worsen the damage.
The scientists believes that these sponges, when scaled up, could be an eco-friendly alternative to tackle marine oil spills.
This study builds on NTU’s body of work on finding new uses for pollen, known as the diamond of the plant kingdom for its hard exterior, by transforming its tough shell into microgel particles. This soft, gel-like material is then used as a building block for a new category of environmentally sustainable materials.