Published: 15 December 2015

New sponge developed to clean up the environment

Researchers from Surrey and the Universidade Federal de Pelotas (UFPel) in Brazil have invented a magnetic carbon-based sponge that could revolutionise the way oil spills are recovered.

The research points to a simple, low-cost remedy for dealing with environmental spillages – such as the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 – which devastate the environment and have a huge impact on public health and the local economy.

Environmental oil spills are currently dealt with by physically skimming the pollutant off the surface of the water and then dispersing the remnant with dispersants, which are often toxic.

The new magnetic graphene sponge, which was developed in Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), tackles the problem in a different way. The sponge has tiny iron nanoparticles (minute particles) anchored inside, and uses a mechanism similar to a carbon water filter to absorb the pollutants while allowing water to pass through unhindered.

Pellet-sized, the sponge’s structure means that it can contain a large volume of pollutant materials relative to its weight. These pollutants are synthesised using graphene oxide, a cheap and easy to produce material.

The presence of magnetic nanoparticles in the sponge framework allows the pollutant-laden sponge to simply be picked up using an everyday magnet, after which it can be reused.

Professor Ravi Silva, ATI Director and co-author of the research paper, said: “The potential applications of our magnetic graphene sponges are significant. They range from important environmental remediation strategies to fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

“I am happy to see this work, developed through the close ties between our respective research groups, come out of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded Surrey Graphene Centre, where interactions of a collaborative and industrial nature are key to our success.”

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