If you were a casual observer watching Argonne National Laboratory scientist Seth Darling work, it would be easy to miss the low-tech but groundbreaking invention he's concocted in his brightly lit workspace.
It doesn't have wires or circuitry, it doesn't move, it doesn't do much of anything. It is in fact, at least at first glance, simply a sponge.
"It looks real simple when you demonstrate it, right?" Darling explained as he lowered the small, dark-colored foam sponges into a bowl of water mixed with blue oil. "I mean, you just stick it down there and it works. But behind that is a lot of work."
Darling explains that what we can see with the human eye — these dark-colored pieces of foam, or sponges — isn't the major breakthrough.
It's what's in, and on, the sponges that is revolutionary.
"After we do our treatment to it, and we create this Oleo Sponge, you put it on there and it's got a voracious appetite for oil. It just soaks that oil right up," he said.
Cleaning, saving oil
While the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago is best known for its contributions to nuclear energy development, it is also an incubator for technological innovation and discovery, the very environment where Darling created the Oleo Sponge.
"So we've been working on this Oleo Sponge project for almost two years," Darling told VOA. "The underlying technology is something that we've been working on for much longer."
He explains the treatment that gives the Oleo Sponge that "voracious appetite" is the real innovation developed at Argonne — something Darling and his associates call Sequential Infiltration Synthesis, or SIS.
"It was just a new way to make materials," Darling said.
SIS works at the nano level. When hard metal oxide atoms "with complicated nanostructures" are infused throughout the fibers of the foam, it gives it the extremely effective quality of allowing the foam to bind with the oil in the water, essentially separating the two liquids.
The breakthrough could dramatically change cleanup of oil spills, particularly the more difficult task of retrieving oil below the surface of the water.
"Once it all goes down below the surface of the water and you have clouds of droplets under the surface, I'm not aware of any technology today that can actually clean those up. And Oleo Sponge can," Darling said.
But the Oleo Sponge doesn't just clean up the oil — it saves it.
Oil spilled into water is usually burned off or unusable after cleanup efforts, but the Oleo Sponge can collect, separate and deposit the oil for further use.
Flood of interest
The sponge itself can also be re-used and recycled, all qualities that have brought a flood of interest to Argonne's doors.
"It's a wide variety of companies that are interested in it," said Hemant Bhimnathwala, with Argonne Laboratory's Business Development Group. "We've got inquiries from about 100-plus companies in the last few days … who want to be partners in a slew of things from manufacturing the foam to distribution."
While oil spill cleanup in bodies of water is the most clearly identifiable use for the Oleo Sponge, the SIS technology behind it could offer breakthroughs in a variety of other ways, yet to be discovered.
"This application is just the tip of the iceberg," Bhimnathwala said.
It is an iceberg Seth Darling and other scientists at Argonne are still delving into, while the Oleo Sponge continues to make its journey into the wider market — and hopefully the world's bodies of water — in the coming years.