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MIT Develops "Paper Towel" For Oil Spills 105

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the cleanup-on-ocean-three dept.
TheUnknownCoder writes "MIT scientists have created a Nanowire mesh that can selectively absorb hydrophobic (oil-like) liquids from water up to 20 times its weight. The membrane can be recycled many times for future use, and the oil itself can also be recovered. There's even a video of it in action, removing gasoline from water."
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MIT Develops "Paper Towel" For Oil Spills

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  • clever (Score:2, Insightful)

    by yincrash (854885)
    Honestly, that's pretty awesome.
    • by MacDork (560499) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:33AM (#23609441) Journal

      Human hair [alaska.edu] does a great job of adsorbing oil, is renewable, and reusable. It can also be burned as fuel when you're done with it. 200,000 pounds of it goes into landfills every day. You could have enough to adsorb the entirety of Exxon Valdez by collecting what is produced in this country in a week.... and it would be essentially free.

      You kids and your fancy nanowire meshes... ;-)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      This is not the first time someone has done this. I work in the oil & gas industry, and there are a number of different products for cleaning up oil. At work we use pig mats [newpig.com], which won't absorb water (if you buy that type). They work as well as anyone could hope for.
    • I'm assuming I'm ignorant about the technology, but hopefully it won't absorb Cyanobacteria. That would make the cure worst than the sickness.
  • by g0bshiTe (596213) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @09:48AM (#23609187)
    are enjoying rum being brought back aboard ship en masse.
  • by Flamora (877499)
    The fact that the oil can be captured and reused, as well as the membrane itself being reusable.
    • by Vectronic (1221470) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @09:55AM (#23609233)
      - Redundant.

      But, I was hoping the video would show them light the mysterious blue gasoline after.

      If it can "recover" gasoline and be instantaniously reuse it... thats very impressive, especially if there are liquids that can reduce, or eliminate the combustability of liquids while mixed with it, and then use the nano-fabric to seperate them and use either for an purpose. Gasoline tanks, airplanes, etc. not to mention many other uses.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        The company my das works for used to sell a chemical that emulsifies gas so if like a tanker ruptures on the road u spray this stuff on it and immediately you could use a blowtorch on it all day and have 0 chance of lighting it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Vectronic (1221470)
          Yeah there are quite a few products like that, but most of them are really complex and cancel eachother out (making both ineffective for their original use), at least with respect to something as simple as a piece of fabric being able to seperate them.

          But you could combine a fuel with another liquid that releases fumes that cancels out the feuls fumes, so that if there was a leak an ignition would be far less or completely impossible.

          But a simple piece of this cloth in a feul filter, could seperate the feul
  • sweet deal (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bsDaemon (87307) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @09:49AM (#23609199)
    So, we can now clean up the environment without losing the petrol? That's so good it has to be fattening.

    This is the sort of thing which should have made the "top 10 technologies of the next 4 years" list rather than punk-ass "social networks"
    • Get real (Score:3, Insightful)

      by WindBourne (631190)
      It was from Gartner. They are a bunch of idiots, so why pay attention to those kinds of lists. In fact, I was actually surprised that it made /.
      • Re:Get real (Score:5, Informative)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) * on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:28AM (#23609417) Homepage
        Besides we can (and do) already DO this. We've had these hydrophilic absorbent pads for years. Have one in the bilge of my boat right now. They work great (even when wet which is supposedly one of the advantages of this new thing).

        In fact, the US Coast Guard gets pretty annoyed if you don't have some method of cleaning up spills. From TFA, this stuff is supposed to work "better" - tastes great, less filling, picks up more stuff, won't absorb water. Likely it will cost lots more (bad idea, the stuff we have is reasonably expensive). The reusable but is interesting - I'm not sure how you would get the hydrocarbon out of the fabric without creating more of a mess or environmental issue than you already have. If you CAN do this, you have one leg up on the big boy versions of these products that are used to contain actual oil spills. These get recycled in the dump. AFAIK, it's always been possible to recycle the oil from the commercial booms, just not easy, environmentally friendly (think of the detergent that the spill containment people dump out to break up the heavier oil products) nor economically feasible.

        We'll see, if it ever gets out of the lab.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Ian Alexander (997430)

          Besides we can (and do) already DO this. We've had these hydrophilic absorbent pads for years. Have one in the bilge of my boat right now. They work great (even when wet which is supposedly one of the advantages of this new thing).

          In fact, the US Coast Guard gets pretty annoyed if you don't have some method of cleaning up spills. From TFA, this stuff is supposed to work "better" - tastes great, less filling, picks up more stuff, won't absorb water. Likely it will cost lots more (bad idea, the stuff we have is reasonably expensive). The reusable but is interesting - I'm not sure how you would get the hydrocarbon out of the fabric without creating more of a mess or environmental issue than you already have. If you CAN do this, you have one leg up on the big boy versions of these products that are used to contain actual oil spills. These get recycled in the dump. AFAIK, it's always been possible to recycle the oil from the commercial booms, just not easy, environmentally friendly (think of the detergent that the spill containment people dump out to break up the heavier oil products) nor economically feasible.

          We'll see, if it ever gets out of the lab.

          According to the article, all one has to do to recover the oil is to heat the pad beyond the boiling point of oil. The pad remains intact but the oil evaporates.

          • Re:Get real (Score:4, Informative)

            by ColdWetDog (752185) * on Saturday May 31, 2008 @04:33PM (#23612219) Homepage
            Good point, missed that. But that means you have to heat the pad to between 175 and 300 [sapiensman.com] Degrees C. That's a fair amount of energy there.
            • by yincrash (854885)
              That energy could be reused (since we aren't making chemical changes, only state changes) or you could use waste heat from power plants or something. 175 isn't very hot.
            • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

              by StrahdVZ (1027852)
              Also according to the article, production techniques are similar to paper and thus the expect it to be considerably cheaper. Of course, patent capitalism will disagree.
            • That's a good point. What I'm wondering is: what is the energy input required to boil oil compared to refining it anew?
    • Better yet, just dump the oil into the water in the first place and don't bother with oil-tankers!
  • by name*censored* (884880) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @09:51AM (#23609211)
    Does it absorb other liquids as well? If this absorbent power works as well as advertised for other fluids, I may have to petition MIT to release this fabric in sock-form.


    Oh.. umm, so I can uhh.. dry my feet. Yeah, that's it. Feet.
    • There's even a video of it in action, removing gasoline from water."

      What I need is the exact opposite of this. I have water in the gas tank of my old truck that I can't seem to get rid of. Every time the guage gets below about an eighth of a tank, it begins coughing and stalling. I've tried some commercial remedies available at auto parts stores, but nothing seems to work well. Draining the tank is a real pain, as well as being very dangerous.

      Wow, what a coincidence...just as I was typing this, Car Tal

      • by maxume (22995) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:21AM (#23609371)
        Unless you are constantly and effectively avoiding gas that contains ethanol as an oxidizer, you probably have some problem other than persistent water (so water could be constantly leaking in...). The ethanol will pull the water into the fuel mix and carry it through the engine just fine, so the water should burn off in a tank or two, it shouldn't persist if you are using gas with ethanol in it, and you probably are.

        "Dry gas" products are often just ethanol or methanol.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bmwm3nut (556681)
        Are you sure that it's water in the tank? The symptoms don't sound like it. Gasoline floats on water, so water should be on the bottom of the tank right where the fuel pick up is. Water should be pumped out first and then fuel.
        • Well, when it starts acting up it only takes a gallon or so of clean gas to get it running again. I'm assuming it's water as this started after I had used up some gas we had in a tank for hurricane season that had been stored in my not-completely-waterproof shed. I put some in the mower, then used the rest in the truck. The mower wouldn't start until I completely replaced the old gas, which is not so easy to do in the truck.

          The truck only has a problem when the guage gets fairly low, but not empty. It
          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Aczlan (636310)

            Well, when it starts acting up it only takes a gallon or so of clean gas to get it running again.
            I might be inclined to suspect a leaking fuel pickup... which would suck in air if the hole is above the level of the gas... Just m $.02
            • by karnal (22275)
              I've had weak fuel pumps show the same symptoms. If I went around a corner in my first car (88 cavalier) without more than 1/4 tank, it would sputter and die. No holes in the fuel pickup, just an almost-out-of-spec fuel pressure coming from the pump. I can only think that it was on it's last legs.

              It died within a few months of this first happening; new fuel pump cleared it all up.
          • Hi
            I suspect a lack of proper baffling in the tank. Sounds like fuel starvation to me. If it is a custom large tank, I also suspect it has a large flat bottom. There is not much you can do about that except maybe tip it a bit toward the fuel pickup area.

            There are a couple of more complicated solutions like putting in a boost pump near the tank and an "accumulator" (read that as a 1/2 gallon small tank) in between the boost pump and the regular pump. If it is an old truck as you say, it probably use
          • by inKubus (199753)
            This is a custom, oversized tank that the previous owner had put in so maybe that has something to do with the problem only showing up when it's nearly empty.

            Maybe it's the gauge that's wrong and the tank is actually empty. If it's a custom tank, the sending unit for the fuel gauge could be incorrectly located or calibrated. So it's reading 1/8 when you're really at 0.
    • I'm not so sure it absorbs anything - it's far more likely that it adsorbs [wikipedia.org] the hydrophobic liquids.

      Useless, inaccurate summary, as per usual :P

      • I'm not so sure it absorbs anything - it's far more likely that it adsorbs the hydrophobic liquids.

        Useless, inaccurate summary, as per usual :P

        Tell it to Francesco Stellacci, a materials science associate prof at MIT and the PI on the project, who was directly quoted as saying "absorb" in TFA.

        A later paragraph also says,

        Two key properties make the system work. First, the nanowires form a spaghetti-like mat with many tiny pores that make for good capillarity, or the ability to absorb liquids. Second, a water-repelling coating keeps water from penetrating into the membrane. Oil, however, isn't affected, and seeps into the membrane.

    • by NickCatal (865805)
      And does it have a big burly man as a logo?
    • by iphayd (170761)
      You realize that I figured that you had really sweaty feet until that last line?
  • hydrophobic liquids (Score:5, Informative)

    by overcaffein8d (1101951) <d.cohen09NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:00AM (#23609263) Homepage Journal
    that is a great idea... but it's only nonpolar things it can absorb. if it's e85 they're transporting, only 15% will be recovered, and that will all be gasoline (the rest'll just get the fishies drunk)

    but if it did pick up polar compounds, it would also pick up water

    p.s. never eat sodium polyacrylate.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by icegreentea (974342)
      How often do people ship e85 over ship like that? I'm serious, I have no idea. I would have thought that oil tankers carry primarily crude oil to refineries, and then the separated stuff from it all over the world, where it gets turned into e85 (or e15 or w/e) locally.

      Also, since ethanol is polar, it'll rapidly dissolve into the water and then spread everywhere. Even if you had a membrane that would selectively pull out ethanol, by the time you got there it would have dispersed all over the place (horizonta
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Drakonik (1193977)
      True, but is that really such a bad thing? Ethanol, compared to gasoline, is harmless. I'm pretty stoked that we'll be able to just lay down a big mat of this material down on top of oil spills in the ocean, and underneath our cars in garages, or maybe even just wrap it around the oil reservoir to create a double-hull of sorts.

      Honestly, this would be revolutionary if it could pick up half its weight in oil. The stuff is RECLAIMABLE for chrissake. I can't really say continued use of oil is going to do the
      • Not when drunk from a jug in large quantities! Yee Haw! Joe Bob, quit huggin' yer cousin.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by smaddox (928261)
        Yeah, but it is only reclaimable if you heat it above the evaporation point of the oil. Good luck doing that in air. The risk of combustion is too high.

        Doing so in a nitrogen environment is possible, but is it really any cheaper than just making another sheet?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Drakonik (1193977)
          Don't they boil crude oil to separate gasoline from diesel from plastic-grade crude, and so on? I think (assuming that the material is heat-resistant enough) we could just throw a big pile of it into the separator tanks and boil it out.

          It's possible that I misunderstand the process, of course. Is it just not that simple?
    • Well there go my dinner plans. Thanks a lot, Slashdot.

      (OK, for those of us who are not materials scientists: its the chemical equivalent of D&D's old Dust of Dryness. You know, does 6D6 if sprinkled on a water elemental, or draws the water out of what it touches on the way down if you eat it. Not too likely to be fatal, though, unless you swallow it in quantities large enough to make table salt fatal. The MSDS says emergency treatment is "drink two glasses of water and then induce vomiting".)
      • that'll get you stopped up! anyway, i'm not a materials scientist. (i'm a future materials scientist :))
        • oh, and another little tidbit for those who don't know, sodium polyacrylate is what they put in diapers to absorb all the water
  • by mikael (484) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:03AM (#23609277)
    Could this be used to filter car and big-truck exhaust fumes?
    • by hampton (209113)
      I think catalytic converters take care of most of that stuff in cars and trucks.
    • by Tweenk (1274968) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @01:18PM (#23610709)
      There are two problems:
      1. The exhaust fumes would have to be precooled. Otherwise, any absorbed hydrocarbons would be desorbed right away due to high temperature.
      2. Reactive species of nitrogen present in exhaust fumes (NO, NO2, etc.) would oxidize the nanowires, so you would have to have a catalytic converter somewhere before them in the exhaust path to remove them, and the cooling phase would have to occur between the converter and the nanowire absorber (platinum only works in high temperatures).

      Since the converter does the same job already (by catalyzing the oxidation of unburnt hydrocarbons in excess oxygen), I think this would be redundant. Additionally, I suppose the nanowires would only remove aerosols and not gaseous hydrocarbons, so the standard platinum converter may actually be more efficient at reducing HC emissions than nanowires.
  • finally :) (Score:5, Funny)

    by jacquesm (154384) <j@ww.3.14159com minus pi> on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:07AM (#23609293) Homepage
    When we completely run out of oil we will have found the perfect solution to clean up the environment...

    Also, by that time the ability to recover the last bits of oil from the oceans from spills in the past will be fought over with tremendous military might, even if it's done from rowing boats.

    Now I know why there are so many people in prison, it's to supply our future stock of galley slaves powering the next global war.
    • by maxume (22995) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:25AM (#23609399)
      Nuclear powered liposuction is equally as ridiculous, and it would probably result in more fuel, at least the first time around.
      • by modecx (130548)
        I advocate turning old people into fuel.

        SenOil... is people?
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by maxume (22995)
          I advocate turning other people into fuel.

          I'll be old someday, but I'll never be someone else.
    • Re:finally :) (Score:5, Informative)

      by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @12:18PM (#23610201) Journal

      When we completely run out of oil we will have found the perfect solution to clean up the environment...

      Also, by that time the ability to recover the last bits of oil from the oceans from spills in the past will be fought over with tremendous military might, even if it's done from rowing boats.
      There's actually a lot of oil sitting on the sea floor, because it doesn't float forever.

      That seafloor oil is one of the main reasons that drilling off the coast of California and in the Gulf of Mexico is not allowed. Whenever there is a spill (and there always is, platform drilling is dirty), oil sinks and mixes in with mud on the seabed. Whenever a big storm rolls in, some of that oil gets churned up and washes ashore.

      If you've ever been on a beach with oil on it, it isn't pretty.
      You need a stiff brush to get the hydrocarbons off your feet.

      Here's the most recent example I can recall:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiyeh_power_station_oil_spill [wikipedia.org]
      That oil is going to be washing up on beaches & shorelines for decades.
      • by jacquesm (154384)
        that sucks. I didn't know that.

        I have seen beaches covered with oil before (I live in nl), and have extracted a couple of birds from oil spilled on to a beach before.

  • nothing new (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    This is actually not new. My Dad is a geologist and he has had this stuff for quite some time. They're actually jokingly referred to as diapers. Although this implementation from MIT is an upgrade to the current ones, dare I say, more absorbent than the leading brand name oil picker upper.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:26AM (#23609403) Homepage Journal
    I'd love to see someone use these materials to filter regular polluted water in our waterways (after a regular filter to keep living creatures out) to both clean the water and recover usable chemicals for fuel.

    And someday someone's going to figure out how to cheaply and easily mine our landfills for all that plastic we've buried for nearly a century. When the cheap oil's gone soon, that's going to be a reasonable alternative if we have the tech.
    • by mortonda (5175)

      And someday someone's going to figure out how to cheaply and easily mine our landfills for all that plastic we've buried for nearly a century. When the cheap oil's gone soon, that's going to be a reasonable alternative if we have the tech.
      Look up thermal depolymerization. It's already being used to turn turkey waste into oil, and it can also handle almost everything in a landfill.
  • Somehow, I'm thinking this could be used to cook bacon (maybe because its 9:00 in the morning). Then again, grease and oil makes bacon good. MIT better not ruin my bacon-eating-experience!!!!
  • Yeah but... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by allmanbro2 (1271890) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @10:48AM (#23609551)
    To reclaim the oil, you have to boil it. Seems like on many scales you would use more energy "wringing out" the paper than you would get from the recovered fuel.
    • Re:Yeah but... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by foniksonik (573572) on Saturday May 31, 2008 @11:01AM (#23609631) Homepage Journal
      As always it depends on where the energy comes from to generate the heat to bring it to a boil... OTOH if the material is expensive, more so than the oil... they'll just do it anyways to reclaim the material.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Castletech (1236226)

      To reclaim the oil, you have to boil it. Seems like on many scales you would use more energy "wringing out" the paper than you would get from the recovered fuel.
      Very true but think about the time and energy used to clean up current oil spills. It may balance out.
      • by neumayr (819083)
        Let's hope it does a little better than 'balance out'. Probably will though - oil isn't going to get any cheaper.
  • Best. Tag. Ever!
  • I was reading the description, and it seems to have the same properties as a material discovered by a professor at my institution. http://www.wooster.edu/News/0708/news/PaulEdmistonGel.php [wooster.edu]
  • As a bioengineer, I'd be asking what's the "shred strength" and propensity to release individual nanofiblers in a variety of situations.

    It's easy to forsee accidental damage to these meshes either during manufacturing or deployemnt in industrial or maritime settings. What's the environmental and biological consequence of releasing or ingesting science's latest laboratory miracle?

    And kudos to previous posters for querying lifecycle energy costs.
  • i hate paper towels. just use a wash cloth or cloth towel. i see all these advertisements for paper towels that you can use over and over, JUST LIKE A CLOTH TOWEL, only you throw it away. -Christian Loriau
  • But is it as amazing as this stuff? http://www.shamwow.com/ [shamwow.com]
  • With the price of oil going up, it is only a matter of time that the USA will uncap their reserves in Alaska. Hey!, wouldn't you do the same?, ...it seems to cost $3 to bring up a barrel of oil and sell at $150 seems like a hell of a deal. So spillages will undoubtedly increase in the future. Good thing we (actually MIT) have discovered this "Nanowire mesh."
  • Industry has used oil-only absorbant pads for years. At the gas station where I worked, we had a whole carton for cleaning up minor spills and leaks. It absorbed only petroleum products, and seperated gas from water. Also useful for cleaning oil spills outside in wet conditions, where you don't want the absorbancy wasted with water that doesn't need to be cleaned up.

    http://www.spillsupply.com/Pads.html [spillsupply.com]

  • My Dad used to be a mechanic at a large excavation company and when I was a teenager, he used to bring me into the shop to help him out on weekends. Because gas and oil spills are common in such a shop, they had these white pads that would soak up gas and oil but nothing else, not even water. The mechanics called them diapers. Did MIT just reinvent these using nano materials? The only difference I can see between these and the MIT invention is that the shop diapers is that the latter were definitely not reu
  • It's about time the tampon had a revolutionary technology!
  • There was an article on The Onion years ago about a new three-ply Bounty paper towel that was supposed to be so absorbent, moisture would be pulled into it, whereupon the liquid would go through a rigorous "Moisture Punishment System". If you didn't reseal the roll in its special case when you weren't using it, it could absorb all the moisture in the room and asphyxiate you. When asked if they were thinking about introducing a four-ply version, the Bounty spokesperson said, "Oh, no. That would be playing Go

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