Membranes made from a mesh of nanowires could be used to clean up oil spills according to a paper published online this week in Nature Nanotechnology.
It is estimated that almost 200,000 tonnes of oil has been spilled at sea in accidents since the start of the decade, so there is a clear need for materials that can remove oil from marine environments quickly and effectively.
Francesco Stellacci and co-workers constructed a membrane that can absorb up to 20 times its own weight of oil or other organic contaminants from water mixtures. The membrane, which is highly porous and about as thick as a sheet of paper, consists of a network of manganese oxide nanowires that are each about 20 nanometres in diameter and assemble into micrometre-length bundles. The team modified the surface of the nanowires to make them attract oil and repel water, and show that this property, combined with the highly porous nature of the membrane, results in selective absorption of organic pollutants such as toluene and motor oil from water mixtures.
In an accompanying News & Views article, Joerg Lahann writes that the membrane ‘provides a blueprint that can guide the design of future nanomaterials for environmental applications’.