This article is from the In-Depth Report Containing and Cleaning Up the Deepwater Oil Rig Disaster
60-Second Science

Nanotech Paper Sops Up Oil Spills

A nanotech material absorbs oil but repels water, making it a possibly perfect picker-upper for tanker spills. Cynthia Graber reports.

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It might look and even feel like paper, but a new material created by scientists at MIT is designed to be an oil spill super-absorber. This technology debuted in a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology. Scientists designed a mesh of nanowires made of potassium manganese oxide. The mesh is dried in much the same manner as cellulose is treated to make paper. Between the nanowires are tiny pores that act like capillaries to absorb liquid—again, like a paper towel.

But the wires have a coating that repels water. In fact, researchers say this material can be left in water for a month and, when taken out, will still be dry. But oil can seep into those pores. The nanopaper can absorb twenty times its weight in oil. And it can be reused. Potassium manganese oxide is stable at high temperatures. So to clean it, researchers heat it above the boiling point of oil. The oil evaporates and the paper is clean again. About 200,000 tons of oil have polluted waters around the world in this decade alone. Scientists say this new nano oil cleaner could help sop up inevitable future spills.

—Cynthia Graber 

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