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Five Years after the BP Oil Spill, Scientists Have Developed Oil Capturing Mesh

water-resistant-meshIt’s been five years since BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico, spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea.

Even now, the clean-up from that spill is still going on and has been an uphill battle getting that oil removed from the sea water.

But now, an unassuming piece of stainless steel mesh in a lab at Ohio State University could make a big difference for future environmental cleanups. 

That’s because water can now pass through the mesh, but oil cannot, all thanks to a nearly invisible oil-repelling coating on its surface. This new material and coating, if it can be implemented to a larger scale, could be the solution to cleaning up the gulf.

The mesh coating is one of many nature-inspired nanotechnologies under development at Ohio State. In tests, researchers mixed water with oil and poured the mixture onto the mesh. The water filtered through the mesh to land in a beaker below while the oil collected on top of the mesh rolled off easily into a separate beaker.

According to Phys.org, the mesh was partly inspired by lotus leaves whose bumpy surfaces naturally repel water but not oil. To create a coating that did the opposite, Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler Professor of mechanical engineering, and Philip Brown, postdoctoral researcher, chose to cover a bumpy surface with a polymer embedded with molecules of surfactant (the stuff that gives cleaning power to soap and detergent). They also sprayed a fine dusting of silica nanoparticles onto the stainless steel mesh to create a randomly bumpy surface.

This combination of silica nanoparticles and surfactant is what enables this mesh to capture oil out of water. Brown also explains that each of these materials are non-toxic and relatively inexpensive. He estimated that a larger mesh net could be created for less than a dollar per square foot.

Bhushan’s work begin in 2005 when he and his team began building and patenting nano-structured coatings that mimic the texture of the lotus leaf. From there, they have worked to amplify the effect and tailor it for different situations. They are also interested in different applications for this technology. Because silica is a component for making glass, the team wants to explore this technology’s potential for creating smudge-free glass coatings. And by exploring the nanoparticles that bind to oil instead of repelling it, the particles could be used to detect oil underground or aid in other oil spill removals.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” says Bhushan. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.” Brown agrees, saying that, “Nature reaches a limit of what it can do. To repel synthetic materials like oils, we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”

Both new and old problems are already waiting to be overcome, like the oil spill in the Gulf. So inventions like this are not only commercially innovative, but will also help to greatly improve our environment. Here’s hoping that more scientific achievements will be coming soon!

photo credit: Phys.org

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