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Nanosponges to recover spilled oil (includes video)

absorbed oil being burned to regenerate clean nanosponge

Rice University graduate student Daniel Hashim burns oil out of a sponge-like material made of carbon nanotubes and a dash of boron. The sponge can soak up oil, which can then be burned off and the sponge reused. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

A new technique that dopes carbon nanotubes with boron atoms provides new evidence of the enormous practical utility of improving methods to control the structure of matter at the nanometer scale, even if the control is not yet atomically precise. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this Rice University news release written by Mike Williams “Nanosponges soak up oil again and again” (includes video):

Researchers at Rice University and Penn State University have discovered that adding a dash of boron to carbon while creating nanotubes turns them into solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have an astounding ability to absorb oil spilled in water.

That’s one of a range of potential innovations for the material created in a single step. The team found for the first time that boron puts kinks and elbows into the nanotubes as they grow and promotes the formation of covalent bonds, which give the sponges their robust qualities.

The researchers, who collaborated with peers in labs around the nation and in Spain, Belgium and Japan, revealed their discovery in Nature’s online open-access journal Scientific Reports ["Covalently bonded three-dimensional carbon nanotube solids via boron induced nanojunctions"].

Lead author Daniel Hashim, a graduate student in the Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, said the blocks are both superhydrophobic (they hate water, so they float really well) and oleophilic (they love oil). The nanosponges, which are more than 99 percent air, also conduct electricity and can easily be manipulated with magnets.

To demonstrate, Hashim dropped the sponge into a dish of water with used motor oil floating on top. The sponge soaked it up. He then put a match to the material, burned off the oil and returned the sponge to the water to absorb more. The robust sponge can be used repeatedly and stands up to abuse; he said a sample remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab. The sponge can also store the oil for later retrieval, he said.

“These samples can be made pretty large and can be easily scaled up,” said Hashim, holding a half-inch square block of billions of nanotubes. “They’re super-low density, so the available volume is large. That’s why the uptake of oil can be so high.” He said the sponges described in the paper can absorb more than a hundred times their weight in oil.

Ajayan, Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and of chemistry, said multiwalled carbon nanotubes grown on a substrate via chemical vapor deposition usually stand up straight without any real connections to their neighbors. But the boron-introduced defects induced the nanotubes to bond at the atomic level, which tangled them into a complex network. Nanotube sponges with oil-absorbing potential have been made before, but this is the first time the covalent junctions between nanotubes in such solids have been convincingly demonstrated, he said.

“The interactions happen as they grow, and the material comes out of the furnace as a solid,” Ajayan said. “People have made nanotube solids via post-growth processing but without proper covalent connections. The advantage here is that the material is directly created during growth and comes out as a cross-linked porous network.

“It’s easy for us to make nano building blocks, but getting to the macroscale has been tough,” he said. “The nanotubes have to connect either through some clever way of creating topological defects, or they have to be welded together.” …

In this case, a scaleable method to introduce a few boron atoms while growing carbon nanotubes produces a novel molecular architecture with amazing and useful properties. Whether or not this specific technique adds to the toolkit that will eventually produce atomically precise manufacturing, it contributes a product that increases incentives for developing ever more precise methods of controlling the structure of matter at the nanometer scale.
—James Lewis, PhD

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