Aerogel offers ‘greener’ way to clean up oil spills

A new type of aerogel technology is being developed in the US, which could offer a cheaper and 'greener' way to absorb oil and heavy metals from water.

Created by a team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the patent-pending aerogel is made up of cellulose nanofibrils (sustainable wood-based materials) and an environmentally friendly polymer. "For this material, one unique property is that it has superior absorbing ability for organic solvents – up to nearly 100x its own weight," said researcher Shaoqin Gong. "It also has strong absorbing ability for metal ions." To give the aerogel its water-repelling and oil-absorbing properties, the researchers freeze-dried it and then treated it with specific types of silane. "If you had an oil spill, for example, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb the oil very quickly and efficiently," Gong noted. "Once it's fully saturated, you can take it out and squeeze out all the oil. Although its absorbing capacity reduces after each use, it can be re-used for a couple of cycles." In compression mechanical testing, the aerogel was said to exhibit excellent flexibility. Though much work needs to be done before it can be mass-produced, Gong says she's eager to share the technology's potential benefits beyond the scientific community. "We are living in a time where pollution is a serious problem – especially for human health and for animals in the ocean," she noted. "We are passionate about developing technology that will make a positive societal impact."