Processing Magazine

Nanomaterial shows promise for oil spill cleanups

May 7, 2013
oil spill
The material is able to soak up 33 times its own weight in ethylene glycol and 29 times its own weight in engine oil, while still being able to float on water.

A team of scientists from Australia and France have developed a new method for removing organic pollutants from water that could dramatically shorten the time needed to tackle oil spills, Nature Communications reported.

The material, called boron nitride or "white graphene," is constructed of sheets of atoms arranged in what appears like a chain-link fence.

Researchers explained that the material is particularly effective for soaking up organic pollutants, which makes it suitable for removing industrial chemicals or engine oil from water. However, it has another advantage that makes it stand out among other similar nanomaterials -- it can be cleaned and then reused. Such nanomaterials are a preferred option when it comes to cleaning pollutants because of their remarkable area-to-weight ratio, which allows them to take up an amazing amount for their size. The newly developed method suggests that the preparation of boron nitride could do much better than traditional materials and outperform other nanomaterials, Nature Communications said.

The method was developed by a team of scientists from the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University in Australia and the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France. They created porous boron nitride nanosheets by laying out single-atom layers of the material with holes in them, forming white powder. This porous variation of boron nitride proves much better than the non-porous sheets and the commercially available type of the material that is not constructed by those sheets.

The porous white graphene has high selective absorption and adsorption properties, picking up organic pollutants out of water, researchers explained. It is able to soak up 33 times its own weight in ethylene glycol and 29 times its own weight in engine oil, while still being able to float on water. After it has extracted the pollutant, the material can then be heated in a furnace or can just be ignited to remove the pollutant from the inside. All these properties make porous boron nitride a suitable option for a range of applications in water cleaning and treatment, including purifying water from organic solvents and dyes, scientists claimed.

While the nanomaterial certainly has the potential to revolutionize water treatment, it is still too early to predict whether it could be commercialized and produced on a large scale. In fact, a market for such materials simply does not exist at present, explained Professor Francesco Stellacci of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He told the BBC News that the data reported by the team of developers was impressive but there was no guarantee that boron nitride would manage to become available for to end consumers on the market, nor that it would outlive and outperform other nanomaterials. Whether it would be established as a preferred option for the industry would not depend on its performance but rather on costs and scalability, he stated.