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A New Polymer Sponge Can Solve Oil Spilling Problems

Scientists have developed a polymer sponge, using waste products from the petroleum and refining industries, that can quickly soak up crude oil from marine spills.

The polymer made from waste cooking oil and sulfur (a by-product of the petroleum industry) could make polluted beaches, oily water, dead birds and marine life destruction a thing of the past.

This is an entirely new and environmentally beneficial application for polymers made from sulfur, said Justin Chalker, from Flinders University in the US.

"This application can consume excess waste sulfur that is stockpiled around the globe and may help mitigate the perennial problem of oil spills in aquatic environments," said Chalker.

Oil spills are a major global issue, with the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation reporting about 7000 tonnes of crude oil spilling from tankers into oceans in 2017 alone.

Hundreds of smaller spills of diesel fuel and other petroleum products affect developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, for example in the Niger Delta and Amazon basin of Ecuador.

The new material made from cheap and sustainable products will help respond to these developing countries where smaller, localized spills threaten groundwater, drinking water and important food staples such as fish.

This is a new class of oil sorbents that is low-cost, scalable, and enables the efficient removal and recovery of oil from water, said Chalker.

The researchers used the common waste substances - canola oil from cooking, sulfur which is a byproduct of the petroleum industry, plus sodium chloride - to create an inexpensive and sustainable sorbent that can mitigate the ecological harm of oil pollution.

Sulfur and cooking oils are hydrophobic, so the new the polymer has an affinity for hydrocarbons such as crude oil and diesel fuel, and can rapidly remove them from seawater.

Laboratory demonstrations of the polymer's clean-up ability show that absorption of the pollutant happens within a minute of the solution being sprinkled onto oil covering the surface of the water.
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