Editorial Feature

The Oleo Sponge: A Solution to Oil Contamination in Water Supplies

                                                                                             Pataporn Kuanui/shutterstock

In what has been described as the worst environmental disaster to ever occur in the history of the United States on April 20, 2010, the BP Oil Spill involved a continuous spillage of an estimated 205.8 million gallons of oil and methane gas into the Gulf of Mexico for a duration of 87 straight days1. In what was caused by a surge of natural gasoline bursting through a weak concrete core of an oil well located almost 5,000 feet below sea level, resulting in a massive explosion that was responsible for the death of 11 and the injuries of 172. While the environmental and wildlife long term effects associated with the gas spill are unclear, scientists are certain that what occurred following the spill is likely to last for generations.

In an effort to clean up this tremendous oil spill, several different types of chemical substances and dispersants were used. Chemical dispersants are typically used in response to oil spills in order to disperse surface slicks into smaller droplets that exhibit an increased bioavailability to the microorganisms within the contaminated seawater. In response to the oil spill of 2010, cleanup crews distributed an estimated 1.8 million gallons of these chemical dispersants3. While scientists believe that the application of these chemical dispersants were useful in removing oil from the surface of the Gulf, to this date there is still an estimated 24-55% of the oil that spilled that is unaccounted for. In fact, researchers have recently noted that the use of these chemical dispersants can cause toxicological effects on the microbial hydrocarbon degradation rates in the water3.

In an effort to respond to both the oil spill itself and the noted negative effects associated with the available correction methods, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has developed the reusable Oleo Sponge that not only absorbs oil from water, but is capable of pulling dispersed oil from the entire water column, not just what is present at the surface4. Argonne inventors Seth Darling and Jeff Elam developed a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS), allowing the research team to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures into common polyurethane foam. By adapting an extremely thin layer of a metal oxide primer onto the interior surface of the foam, a glue-like attachment layer is formed that is capable of attaching to oil-loving molecules5. Once these molecules are deposited onto the surface, they hold onto this layer and continue to grab the oil molecules out of the water.

Of the hundreds of tests conducted in analyzing the efficacy of the Oleo Sponge as an oil absorber, the National Oil Spoil Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey submerged the sponge into a giant sweater tank called Ohmsett. Within Ohmsett, the Oleo Sponge was found to successfully collect both diesel and crude oil from both the surface of the water as well as from further below into the water column4. After running dozens to hundreds of tests on the same sponge and wringing it out each time, the absence of any breakdown of the sponge exhibited an impressive study and flexible nature of the sponge that has not been seen in any other product for this purpose.

Future commercialization of the Oleo Sponge is hopeful in its ability to be used to clean harbors and ports in which diesel and oil tend to accumulate from ship traffic. In fact, this product also has the potential to be adapted to other types of cleanup materials besides oil in seawater4.


  1. Griffin, Drew. "5 Years after the Gulf Oil Spill: What We Do (and Don't) Know." CNN. Cable News Network, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/14/us/gulf-oil-spill-unknowns/.
  2. Pallardy, Richard. "Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 09 May 2016. Web. https://www.britannica.com/event/Deepwater-Horizon-oil-spill-of-2010.
  3. D'Angelo, Chris. "Products Used To Clean Up BP Oil Spill May Have Made Things Worse." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 Dec. 2016. Web. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bp-gulf-oil-spill-cleanup_us_564a52f4e4b06037734a7558.
  4. DOE/Argonne National Laboratory. "Reusable sponge created that soaks up oil." ScienceDaily. 8 March 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170308092505.htm.
  5. "Argonne Invents Reusable Sponge That Soaks up Oil, Could Revolutionize Oil Spill and Diesel Cleanup." Argonne National Laboratory. Web. http://www.anl.gov/articles/argonne-invents-reusable-sponge-soaks-oil-could-revolutionize-oil-spill-and-diesel-cleanup.

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.


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