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New technology could make for cheaper, faster oil spills cleanup

A small sample of the aerogel substance is dipped into a beaker containing water and diesel fuel that has been dyed red. The aerogel absorbed the diesel fuel and not the water.

Bryce Richter/UW-Madison

A material developed at UW-Madison could lead the way toward cheaper, faster cleanups of oil spills and other environmental hazards.

The material is an aerogel, highly porous material considered the lightest solid in existence, used in insulation and aerospace. This new aerogel has been developed by Shaoqin Gong, a researcher at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, graduate student Qifeng Zheng and Zhiyong Cai of the USDA Forest Products Laboratory in Madison.

Gong and her team used cellulose nanofibrils and an environmentally-friendly polymer to make a "greener" aerogel, according to a news release from UW-Madison Communications.

What's different about this product?

"It can absorb up to nearly 100 times its own weight," Gong said in the release. "So, if you had an oil spill, the idea is you could throw this aerogel sheet in the water and it would start to absorb oil very quickly and efficiently."

The sheet would also be reusable.

"Once it's fully saturated, you can take it out and squeeze out all the oil," Gong said. "Although its absorbing capacity reduces after each use, it can be reused for a couple of cycles."

More work needs to be done to make the material a mass-produced product, but Gong said she wants to share the 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 said.

"We are passionate to develop technology to make a positive societal impact."


Bill Novak is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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