Aerogel technology holds potential for oil and chemical clean-up

February 25, 2014 by Marianne Spoon
Aerogel technology holds potential for oil and chemical clean-up
Here the sponge-like aerogel soaks up only the red-dyed diesel fuel in a beaker of water.

Cleaning up oil spills and metal contaminates in a low-impact, sustainable and inexpensive manner remains a challenge for companies and governments globally.

But a group of researchers at UW–Madison is examining alternative, greener materials that can be modified to absorb oil and chemicals. If further developed, the technology may offer a cheaper and more to absorb oil and heavy metals from water and other surfaces.

Shaoqin "Sarah" Gong, a researcher at WID's BIONATES research group and associate professor of biomedical engineering, along with graduate student Qifeng Zheng and Zhiyong Cai, a project leader at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., have recently created and patented the new aerogel technology.

Aerogels, which are highly porous materials and the lightest solids in existence, are already used in a variety of applications, ranging from insulation and aerospace materials to thickening agents in paints.

The aerogel prepared in Gong's lab is made of cellulose nanofibrils (sustainable wood-based materials) and an environmentally friendly polymer. Furthermore, these cellulose-based aerogels are made using an environmentally-friendly freeze-drying process without the use of organic solvents.

Aerogel technology holds potential for oil and chemical clean-up
Shaoquin Gong, Qifeng Zheng and Zhiyong Cai showcase their new aerogel technology.

It's the combination of this "greener" material and its high performance that got Gong's attention.

"For this material, one unique property is that it has superior absorbing ability for organic solvents—up to nearly 100 times its own weight," she says. "It also has strong absorbing ability for metal ions."

Treating the cellulose-based aerogel with specific types of silane after it is made through the freeze-drying process is a key step that gives the aerogel its water-repelling and oil-absorbing properties.

"So if you had an oil spill, for example, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb the oil very quickly and efficiently," she says. "Once it's fully saturated, you can take it out and squeeze out all the . Although its absorbing capacity reduces after each use, it can be reused for a couple of cycles."

In addition, this cellulose-based aerogel exhibits excellent flexibility as demonstrated by compression mechanical testing.

Though much work needs to be done before the production of the aerogel can be mass-produced, Gong says she's eager to share the technology's potential benefits beyond the scientific community.

"We are living in a time where pollution is a serious problem—especially for human health and for animals in the ocean," she says. "We are passionate to develop technology to make a positive societal impact."

Explore further: New material absorbs, conserves oil (w/ Video)

More information: "Green synthesis of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)–cellulose nanofibril (CNF) hybrid aerogels and their use as superabsorbents." Qifeng Zheng, Zhiyong Cai, Shaoqin Gong. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2014,2, 3110-3118. DOI: 10.1039/C3TA14642A.

Related Stories

Researchers produce ultra-light aerogel

March 25, 2013

A research team headed by Professor Gao Chao have developed ultra-light aerogel – it breaks the record of the world's lightest material with surprising flexibility and oil-absorption. This progress is published in the "Research ...

Making aerogels the fast way

February 4, 2014

One day, Union College's Aerogel Team's novel way of making "frozen smoke" could improve some of our favorite machines, including cars.

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

New 'self-healing' gel makes electronics more flexible

November 25, 2015

Researchers in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin have developed a first-of-its-kind self-healing gel that repairs and connects electronic circuits, creating opportunities to advance the ...

Getting under the skin of a medieval mystery

November 23, 2015

A simple PVC eraser has helped an international team of scientists led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York to resolve the mystery surrounding the tissue-thin parchment used by medieval scribes to produce the first ...

Atom-sized craters make a catalyst much more active

November 24, 2015

Bombarding and stretching an important industrial catalyst opens up tiny holes on its surface where atoms can attach and react, greatly increasing its activity as a promoter of chemical reactions, according to a study by ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.