Research at Rice and Penn State Universities could be a boon to oil-spill-challenged companies. Scientists have come upon a combo of elements that results in a sponge that soaks up oil. Not looking at all like your common kitchen sponge, the new entity is called a nanosponge.

Oil Sponge prototypeWhen working with nanotubes, the researchers discovered that adding boron distorts the nanotubes while they grow forming covalent bonds which makes an absorbent sponge. "To add the boron, we used very high temperatures and we then ‘knitted’ the substance into the nanotube fabric," explained Mauricio Terrones, a professor of physics, materials science and engineering at Penn State University."

The new nanosponges, although powerful, are mostly air, reportedly slightly more than 99 percent. The tubes float above water being superhydrophobic and absorb oil being oleophilic. These remarkable units conduct electricity and also react to magnets.

Two scientists are leading the development of carbon nanotubes for the oil-spill remediationDaniel Hashim, a graduate student at Rice said the sponges can absorb more than a hundred times their weight in oil. Materials Lab scientist Pulickel 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?.

Terrones indicated the worth of their work:

"Oil-spill remediation and environmental cleanup are just the beginning of how useful these new nanotube materials could be. For example, we could use these materials to make more efficient and lighter batteries. We could use them as scaffolds for bone-tissue regeneration. We even could impregnate the nanotube sponge with polymers to fabricate robust and light composites for the automobile and plane industries."