Polymer made from industrial waste could help clean up oil spills

An international team of researchers at the Flinders University in Australia developed a new polymer made from waste cooking oil and sulphur, a by-product of the petroleum industry, which has the ability to clean up crude oil and diesel spills.

Oil spills cause polluted beaches, oily water, dead animals and destruction of marine life. In 2017 alone, 7,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled from tankers into oceans. Often, spills happen in parts of the world that have limited economic resources.

The new polymer acts as a sponge, absorbing oil, but not water. The oil can be squeezed from the sponge to recover the oil, and then be reused, so that nothing is wasted.

The material is made from two waste products: used cooking oil and sulphur, which is a by-product from the petroleum industry. Around 60 million tonnes of sulphur is extracted as a by-product of oil and gas refinement annually. Using these abundantly available waste products, a cheap and effective solution was found to curb the damage caused by oil spills and even mercury.

Sulphur and cooking oils are hydrophobic, but have an affinity for hydrocarbons such as crude oil and diesel fuel. The reaction between the two creates a new type of polymer that can rapidly remove these from seawater.

Lab demonstrations showed that the polymer’s cleans up pollutants within a minute of the solution being sprinkled onto the oil. The particles could also be used in a filter system.

Photos: Igor Golubenkov / Flinders University