Smart solution for cleaning up oil spills was inspired by nature

oil spill nanofur material 4087790397 faa752715a o
Robert Alsbrook/Flickr CC
You only need to think back to the BP oil spill of 2010 to realize what an enormous potential problem such spillages are.

That’s why researchers at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in conjunction with colleagues from Bonn University, have been exploring new materials capable of mopping up large quantities of oil — and they’ve turned to nature to help them.

“We — and other scientists worldwide — would like to increase the absorption capacity of artificial oil absorbers as this is a serious problem for the environment,” Hendrik Hölscher, one of the researchers involved with the study, told Digital Trends.

“Our solution is ‘nanofur,’ already invented and patented at KIT. Fabrication of nanofur is a comparably simple process: it can be produced by pressing a hot rough steel plate into a polymer foil. The surface of the polymer melts and, when the steel plate is retracted, micro and nano-scaled hairs are pulled from the surface. Nanofur is superhydrophobic and superoleophilic. Therefore, it can selectively absorb oil while repelling water.”

Nanofur took its inspiration from water ferns, which are capable of absorbing oil while remaining water-repellent, due to the hairy microstructure of their leaves. This water-repellent aspect is important for this task, since the majority of materials which can absorb oil (like sawdust) also absorb water. This makes them impractical for dealing with sea-based oil spills.

“The most important lesson we learned from our experiments is that hairy absorbent materials are generally better than non-hairy,” Hölscher continued. “Interestingly, not only the hair length but also the shape of the hairs plays a significant role. We now know that the shape of the hair ends is important, because they need to support the oil and air interface to ensure maximum oil absorption and retention capability. We will use that results for our artificial surface developed for oil-spill cleanup.”

In terms of rolling this technology out, Hölscher says that upscaling the fabrication process and commercial production of nanofur is a desirable long-term objective. “We are in contact with some companies, but it will take time to get on the market,” he said.

Hopefully the sooner, the better.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

ANYmal dog robot can get back on its feet when someone pushes it over

Roboticists at ETH Zurich have demonstrated how their ANYmal four-legged robot is capable of taking a kicking and keeping on walking -- or getting back to its feet if it's pushed over.
Emerging Tech

Pilotless planes are on their way, but would you fly in one?

Airbus says advancements in artificial intelligence can help it toward its goal of building a plane capable of fully autonomous flight, though whether passengers can be persuaded to travel in one is another matter entirely.
Cars

Nissan IMs concept teases a future long-range, autonomous electric car

Debuting at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the Nissan IMs is an electric car with a 380-mile range, autonomous-driving capability, and a backseat designed for being chauffeured. Too bad it's just a concept car.
Emerging Tech

How long is a day on Saturn? Scientists finally have an answer

The length of Saturn's day has always been a challenge to calculate because of the planet's non-solid surface and magnetic field. But now scientists have tracked vibrations in the rings to pin down a final answer.
Emerging Tech

Google’s radar-sensing tech could make any object smart

Computer scientists have shown how Google’s Soli sensor can be used to make dumb objects smart. Here's why radar-powered computing could finally make the dream of smart homes a reality.
Emerging Tech

Tiny microbots fold like origami to travel through the human body

Tiny robots modeled after bacteria could be used to deliver drugs to hard to reach areas of the human body. Scientists have developed elastic microbots that can change their shape depending on their environment.
Emerging Tech

Dinosaurs never stood a chance after asteroid impacts doubled 290M years ago

The number of asteroids pummeling Earth jumped dramatically around 290 million years ago. By looking at Moon craters, scientists discovered that d the number of asteroid impacts on both Earth and the Moon increased by two to three times.
Emerging Tech

Saturn didn’t always have rings, according to new analysis of Cassini data

Saturn's rings are younger than previously believed, according to new data gathered from the Cassini mission. The rings are certainly less than 100 million years old and perhaps as young as 10 million years old.
Emerging Tech

Water-based fuel cell converts carbon emissions to electricity

Scientists from Korea's Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have developed a system which can continuously produce electrical energy and hydrogen by dissolving carbon dioxide in an aqueous solution.
Emerging Tech

Scientists investigate how massive stars die in dramatic hypernova events

Our Sun will gradually fade before expanding into a red giant at the end of its life. But larger mass stars undergo extreme explosive events called hypernovas when they die which outshine their entire galaxies.
Emerging Tech

‘Tech vest’ prevents Amazon workers from colliding with robot co-workers

Amazon workers at its fulfillment centers are using "tech vests" to help protect them from collisions with their robot co-workers. The robots already have obstacle avoidance sensors, but the belt offers another layer of safety.
Emerging Tech

3D printers are finally affordable. Here are the best models under $500

3D printer prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years, but just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. Here, we’ve rounded up all the cheap 3D printers that are actually worth spending your money on.
Mobile

T-Mobile 5G rollout: Here is everything you need to know

2019 will be a huge year for T-Mobile. Not only is a merger with Sprint likely, but T-Mobile is also in the midst of building out its next-generation mobile service. Here's everything you need to know about the T-Mobile 5G rollout.