An international team led by Rice and Penn State University found that adding boron to the raw carbon yielded solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have a marked ability to absorb oil spilled in water.
‘Our goal was to find a way to make three-dimensional networks of these carbon nanotubes that would form a macroscale fabric — a spongy block of nanotubes that would be big and thick enough to be used to clean up oil spills and to perform other tasks,’ said Mauricio Terrones of Penn State.
‘We realised that the trick was adding boron — a chemical element next to carbon on the periodic table — because boron helps to trigger the interconnections of the material. To add the boron, we used very high temperatures and we then “knitted” the substance into the nanotube fabric.’
The oil can be stored in the sponge for later retrieval or burned off so the sponge can be reused, the team claims. For oil spills, the researchers will have to make large sheets of these or find a way to weld sheets together.