Polyurethane foam Oleo Sponge successfully removes oil sheen

Developed last year, the so-called Oleo Sponge, which is made of polyurethane foam, has proven itself in real-life circumstances, cleaning up even hard-to-clean oil sheen.

The Oleo Sponge, which looks somewhat like an outdoor seat cushion, is a patent pending, reusable technology, developed at Argonne National Laboratory. The material is made from polyurethane foam, commonly used for furniture cushions, and works just a like a normal sponge, absorbing oil, and can be wrung out and reused.

Last year, the sponge was proven to be able to clean up diesel and crude oil, both from below and on the water surface. Earlier this month, the material was tested in a setting that mimicked a real-world oil spill. The material was able to remove oil sheen, a layer of surface oil of only one micron thick that shimmers on top of the water, unlike traditional methods. These methods include skimming, in-situ burns, but for both these methods, the oil has to be a thick layer, so they don’t work with sheen.

Another method is using gelling agents, chemicals that turn oil into rubber-like solids. However, you need large quantities of these agents, which makes them impractical for large spills.

The Oleo Sponge successfully lifeted sheen from the water, leaving behind no visible oil. The sponge is non-toxic and can be wrung out. The collected oil can then be reused or safely disposed of.

The test was conducted at the Coal Oil Point Seep Field in the Santa Barbara Channel near Goleta with a set of sponges of about 60 by 60 centimetre (2 by 2 feet). Argonne currently makes the sponge in small quantities for research studies using laboratory equipment and is seeking commercialisation partners interested in scaling the technology.

Photos: Mark Lopez/Argonne National Laboratory