Nanoparticles can mop oil spills by absorbing 10 times their weight

Distinguished Professor Karen Wooley, along with her graduate students in the Wooley Laboratory, are involved in National Science Foundation-sponsored research to define polymers of increasing complexity—to create materials that have never been created before—and define applications for these materials.

Among the lab’s innovations are magnetic particles that feature an iron oxide core surrounded by a polymer mesh shell — a mixture of Styrofoam and the absorbent material found in baby diapers. Each magnetic-polymer nanoparticle can absorb more than 10 times its own weight in crude oil, both in the water and mixed in the sand at its floor. The polymer coating mixes with the water to take the “nano-sponges” below the surface, where they soak up oil and change color from light tan to black.

Buoyed by the Styrofoam and captured oil, they eventually float to the surface, where they are collected with a magnet and washed with ethanol to remove the oil and ready them for reuse.

While Wooley notes they are improbable as a sole solution, given that soaking up a barrel of crude oil (roughly 300 pounds) would require about 30 pounds of nanoparticles, she says they certainly could be effective in a clean-up role after employing more traditional methods to mop up the majority of the spill.

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