A new, improved absorbent should aid in oil spill clean-ups.

Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was not the largest in history nor is it likely to be the last. But a patent-pending material developed by T.C. (Mike) Chung, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, could dramatically reduce the environmental damage of future spills.

Chung’s material is a new polyolefin-based petroleum superabsorbent called PETROGEL that not only absorbs floating oil, but allows for its recovery and subsequent refining. When applied to a spill, PETROGEL immediately begins to absorb oil (but not water), and within 10 minutes will increase its weight by more than 10 times. Within 12 hours, Chung says, it can absorb 40 times its own weight in oil. “The resultant solid mass will continue to float on the surface,” he says, “and can be scooped up from the water or shore.” Chung also speculates that the material could be applied directly to a leaking deep-sea wellhead to create a gel that would mitigate damage to the deep marine environment.

Polyolefins are thermoplastics used in shrink wraps and other food packaging; they are inexpensive and widely produced. Chung estimates that the cost of commercially producing PETROGEL could be below $2 per pound, while the amount of oil recovered per pound of material—around 5 gallons—would be worth $12, based on a crude oil price of $80 a barrel. In addition, PETROGEL can be refined along with the oil it absorbs, avoiding the hazardous waste byproducts associated with disposal of other clean-up materials.

PETROGEL in action

For more information, see Petro-SAP for Oil Spill Recovery.

Last Updated August 23, 2011