Researchers develop nanowire 'paper towel' for oil spills

May 30, 2008
Nanowire 'paper towel' for oil spills
MIT has developed a new material for absorbing oil and other organic pollutants. Here the material is used to remove a layer of gasoline (dyed blue) from a vial of water. Image courtesy / Francesco Stellacci, MIT, and Nature Nanotechnology

A mat of nanowires with the touch and feel of paper could be an important new tool in the cleanup of oil and other organic pollutants, MIT researchers and colleagues report in the May 30 online issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

The scientists say they have created a membrane that can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil, and can be recycled many times for future use. The oil itself can also be recovered. Some 200,000 tons of oil have already been spilled at sea since the start of the decade.

“What we found is that we can make 'paper' from an interwoven mesh of nanowires that is able to selectively absorb hydrophobic liquids-oil-like liquids-from water,” said Francesco Stellacci, an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and leader of the work.

In addition to its environmental applications, the nanowire paper could also impact filtering and the purification of water, said Jing Kong, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and one of Stellacci's colleagues on the work. She noted that it could also be inexpensive to produce because the nanowires of which it is composed can be fabricated in larger quantities than other nanomaterials.

Stellacci explained that there are other materials that can absorb oils from water, “but their selectivity is not as high as ours.” In other words, conventional materials still absorb some water, making them less efficient at capturing the contaminant.

The new material appears to be completely impervious to water. “Our material can be left in water a month or two, and when you take it out it's still dry,” Stellacci said. “But at the same time, if that water contains some hydrophobic contaminants, they will get absorbed.”

Made of potassium manganese oxide, the nanowires are stable at high temperatures. As a result, oil within a loaded membrane can be removed by heating above the boiling point of oil. The oil evaporates, and can be condensed back into a liquid. The membrane-and oil-can be used again.

Two key properties make the system work. First, the nanowires form a spaghetti-like mat with many tiny pores that make for good capillarity, or the ability to absorb liquids. Second, a water-repelling coating keeps water from penetrating into the membrane. Oil, however, isn't affected, and seeps into the membrane.

The membrane is created by the same general technique as its low-tech cousin, paper. “We make a suspension of nanowires, like a suspension of cellulose [the key component of paper], dry it on a non-sticking plate, and we get pretty much the same results,” Stellacci said.

In a commentary accompanying the Nature Nanotechnology paper, Joerg Lahann of the University of Michigan concluded: “Stellacci and co-workers have provided an example of a nanomaterial that has been rationally designed to address a major environmental challenge.”

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Explore further: Thinnest feasible nano-membrane produced

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Nanotechnology for water purification

Jul 29, 2010

Nanotechnology refers to a broad range of tools, techniques and applications that simply involve particles on the approximate size scale of a few to hundreds of nanometers in diameter. Particles of this size have some unique ...

Nanoparticles assemble by millions to encase oil drops

May 29, 2008

In a development that could lead to new technologies for cleaning up oil spills and polluted groundwater, scientists at Rice University have shown how tiny, stick-shaped particles of metal and carbon can trap oil droplets ...

Recommended for you

Thinnest feasible nano-membrane produced

Apr 17, 2014

A new nano-membrane made out of the 'super material' graphene is extremely light and breathable. Not only can this open the door to a new generation of functional waterproof clothing, but also to ultra-rapid filtration. The ...

Wiring up carbon-based electronics

Apr 17, 2014

Carbon-based nanostructures such as nanotubes, graphene sheets, and nanoribbons are unique building blocks showing versatile nanomechanical and nanoelectronic properties. These materials which are ordered ...

Making 'bucky-balls' in spin-out's sights

Apr 16, 2014

(Phys.org) —A new Oxford spin-out firm is targeting the difficult challenge of manufacturing fullerenes, known as 'bucky-balls' because of their spherical shape, a type of carbon nanomaterial which, like ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

UAE reports 12 new cases of MERS

Health authorities in the United Arab Emirates have announced 12 new cases of infection by the MERS coronavirus, but insisted the patients would be cured within two weeks.