Scientists in the US have created a material to soak up oil spills below the water surface. The sponge-like material is recyclable, and even allows for the spilt oil to be reused.

Oil spills such as Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon are ecological disasters and remediating them can run into billions of dollars. The challenge with tackling spills like this is not necessarily the visible surface oil slick, but oil plumes leaking in the water column.

Seth Darling, Jeffrey Elam and co-workers at Argonne National Laboratory created a material to tackle this deeper problem by covering a commercially available polyurethane foam, first with a layer of aluminium oxide, then the silicon-based oleophilic agent (3-aminopropyl)triethoxysilane. They tested it at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey by using vessels to submerge and trawl nets containing the material through seawater tanks polluted with crude oil. The material was exceptional at adsorbing oil in the water column and the researchers showed they could winch it from the tank, wring it out, then use it again.