The Manhattan Project’s contribution to shutting the door on World War II was monumental, but its practice of pulling together resources from government, the private sector and academia may prove a legacy of nearly equal benefit.
The Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago’s origins began as a key player in the Manhattan Project’s effort to create a controlled self-contained nuclear chain reaction. Then it was called the University’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Today from its Manhattan Project beginning, Argonne National Laboratory may have found a simple, scientific means to rid the oceans of errant and destructive fossil fuel spills. It’s called the Oleo Sponge.
From the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists realized they had no means of mitigating any but the oil that rose to the surface. Most formed an underwater plume and wreaked havoc along the Gulf of Mexico environment.
Scientists Seth Darling and Jeff Elam at Argonne developed a process called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS) as a means to coat polyurethane foam with a thin layer of metal oxide. The metal oxide veneer acted as a primer to attract oil molecules. Dubbed the Oleo Sponge, the Argonne Lab’s team of scientists discovered their new creation is capable of absorbing 90 times its weight in oil at every level in water. Further, the oil can be wrung out for reuse allowing the sponge to work its magic hundreds of times over.
In addition to oil spills, the hope is to apply the sponge technology to cleaning harbors and ports of diesel and oil from ship traffic.
Argonne scientists continue to improve the sponge technology to expand its ability to remove other toxic materials such as lead, radionuclide, and mercury from water.
Argonne National Laboratory works with private companies, universities, as well as federal, state, and municipal agencies. It is managed by an affiliate of the University of Chicago and operates on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Research for the project was provided by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Resources from the DOE Office of Science’s Center for Nanoscale Materials contributed to the sponge’s development.