Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research aka IISER at Thiruvananthapuram have developed an innovative, inexpensive and eco-friendly way of cleaning up oil spills from sea. The solution would help tackle one of the serious problems that has often destroyed the marine ecosystem. Until now, there had been several attempts at developing procedures and techniques to remove oil spilt in the sea and the solution from IISR would be a big leap in the right direction.
Researchers Kana M Suresan and Annamalai Prathap, both from IISR found their solution in a simple strategy. They combined the absorption and gelation processes and were successful in binding the oil to a porous matrix. The solid particles were then scooped out of water. Researchers found out that even when full with the oil, the granules stuck to the surface instead of sinking.
Gulf Oil Spill. Credit: Gulf Oil Spill on National Geographic
Cellulose was chosen as an eco-friendly, cheap and porous carrier matrix. It was then impregnated with an 'oleogelator' - a mannitol-based organic compound. This allowed the scientists to create an effective oil-absorbing and recycling system. Phase-selective organogelators are amphiphiles, that is, they are both water-loving and fat-loving as well. These can congeal oils (aka solidify) from a mixture of oil and water.
Researchers explain that gelation happens because the molecules of gelator dissolve in oil to form a 3D fiber network through Hydrogen bonding, turning the liquid oil phase into solid. This solid can be quickly scooped out of water. Scientists have demonstrated that through distillation or squeezing the congealed oil granules, oil can be obtained.
Oil spills have very damaging effect on the marine ecosystem. You may remember the BP oil disaster that happened back in 2010. It is considered as the largest oil spills in the petroleum industry. Take a look at following documentary from BBC about the BP Oil Spill: