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Mauritius oil spill: Avant-garde sponge could spare ecosystems

Mauritius oil spill Avant-garde sponge could spare ecosystems

Could Mauritius be the ground for a pioneering technology to soak up the oil spill? A university in Illinois, United States, has developed a nanocomposite technology that can bring environmental remediation to oil spills. A new method that would cost only a couple of dollars per gallon of oil recovered.

At this point, no solicitation came from Mauritius, neither from the government nor from the private sector, says Prof. Vinayak Dravid, who leads the research in Northwestern University team in Illinois, United States.

A technology ready to try now!

The research team presented the OHM sponge, as a real game-changing solution for oil spill clean-up. First published in the journal of Industrial Engineering and Chemical Research in May this year, the highly porous smart sponge soaks up oil spills using a nanocomposite coating. It can absorb more than 30 times its weight in oil. And more importantly, the sponge could be used to clean up oil spills without harming marine life.

The technology and approach are ready to try now. Given the size of the spill, within a week of starting the production, we can start removing oil“, Prof. Vinayak Dravid says.

He further adds: “In principle, the deployment of our sponge can be done by local volunteers and workers who would simply throw the OHM sponge pads, absorb oil, squeeze the pad through rollers on the boat to collect oil and then throw the pads back again into the ocean and repeat the operation.” 

This technology could help save the fauna and flora on Mauritius’ shores, argues Prof. Vinayak Dravid. “One of its biggest advantages is that the sponge can be made into balls that can be left in an oil-laden sand/soil pit. The oil will get absorbed in days, and the sponge can be reused“, he explains. The OHM sponge seems to be an all-around solution for oil spills, as it can even be used to absorb oil deposits on the seafloor.

A smart sponge that selectively soaks up oil, sparing water and wildlife, could clean up oil spills

A more sustainable way to clean up oil spill

The sponge is promoted as “a more economical, efficient, and eco-friendly manner than any of the current state-of-the-art solutions” used to clean up oil spills. 

Oil spill clean-up is known to be an expensive and complicated process. It often harms marine life and further damages the environment. Currently used solutions include burning the oil, using chemical dispersants to breakdown oil into tiny droplets, skimming oil floating on top of the water, and/or absorbing it with expensive, unrecyclable sorbents.

According to a press release from Northwestern University on the matter, it is said that each approach has its drawbacks, and none are sustainable solutions. Vikas Nandwana, a senior research associate in Dravid’s laboratory, said: “Burning increases carbon emissions and dispersants are harmful to marine wildlife. Skimmers don’t work in rough waters or with thin layers of oil. And sorbents are expensive and generate a huge amount of solid waste, similar to the diaper landfill issue.”

Thus, the OHM sponge presents a triple advantage in terms of cost, ease of deployment, and further impact on the environment that could help absorb the oil spill in the pristine lagoon of Pointe d’Esny. It could be a real response test for Mauritius, where bunches of experts from Japan, France, Greece, India, etc. are gathering to provide solutions to the Mauritian government.

The secret lies in the nanocomposite coating of magnetic nanostructures and a carbon-based substrate that is oleophilic (attracts oil), hydrophobic (resists water), and magnetic. It selectively interacts with and binds to the oil molecules, capturing and storing the oil. 

We believe our technology is the most efficient and effective among all available ones for now. There are many variables, but just for materials alone, our sponge would be most cost-effective, with an estimate of less than a couple of US dollars per gallon of oil recovered/absorbed. Sorbents and other technologies often cost more than $5-10/gallon recovery“, Vinayak Dravid tells Aufait.

The OHM sponge may help wave off some million on the cleaning operation bill and be used to compensate the deeply affected villagers better, as insurers speak of limits of compensation of $18.7 million to $65 million.