Technology

Layer Cake of Nanoparticles Could Clean Up Oil Spills

Durable coating over a stainless steel mesh could be scaled up for huge messes.

By Leah ShafferNov 30, 2015 12:00 AM
Oil Spill - Shutterstock
(Credit: Signature Message/Shutterstock)

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Cleaning oil spills could be as easy as scraping frosting off a cake, thanks to a nanoparticle coating developed by Philip Brown and Bharat Bhushan, engineers at the Ohio State University.

Traditional chemicals that disperse oil spills can harm marine life more than the oil itself. Instead, environmentalists might one day use specially coated nets that separate oil from water. The coating, announced in March, covers a stainless steel mesh and works by first adding silica nanoparticles to create a bumpy, liquid-repelling surface. Next comes a polymer layer that acts as a binder, followed by a layer of surfactant, a molecule with two key parts: one that loves water and another that hates oil. The surfactant’s different response to the two liquids allows the coated mesh to separate them. When Brown and Bhushan tested the mesh, water slid through while oil remained trapped on top.

Thanks to a special coating on this stainless steel mesh, a mixture of oil and water is easily separated. The technology could be scaled up for bigger projects, such as cleaning oil spills. (Credit: Philip S. Brown and Bharat Bhushan/Ohio State University)

The layered approach helps the coating components bind and function better, and the more durable the coating, the more affordable it is to scale up for major oil spills. Any way you bake it, this layer cake of tiny particles could provide durable filters for big messes.

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