Re-purposing waste to soak up oil spills and mercury pollution

November 2018

A group of innovative international scientists have combined two common waste materials to develop a cheap and sustainable recovery tool for crude oil and mercury pollution.

Flinders University chemist Dr Justin Chalker is leading an inspiring team of researchers, including the Australian National Fabrication Facility – SA node’s Dr Jason Gascooke. Together, they are not just rethinking the future of producing materials, they are literally cooking up industry’s left-overs, to create them.

The team have developed a reusable and buoyant polymer by reacting two industrial waste products, sulfur and used cooking oil. Byproducts of the petroleum and food industry respectively, both are produced in multi-million tonnes each year and are equally accessible and affordable. With multiple environmental applications the novel polymer can be used in either a powdered form or packed into a filter, depending on the remediation required.

Marine devastation caused by oil spills can be easily mitigated with the polymer quickly soaking up the crude oil. By simply squeezing the oil-soaked polymer, the crude oil can be efficiently recovered, and the polymer reused. The polymer can also capture diverse forms of mercury from air, water, and soil which threatens the health of millions of humans globally.

“There is the intriguing prospect of making an oil or mercury-binding polymer, in a single, solvent-free step, in which every atom in the polymer is derived from industrial waste,” said Dr Chalker. ANFF-SA’s state-of-the-art Tip Enhancing Raman Spectroscopy (TERS) system was critical to assessing the various environmental applications of the polymer.

Using a non-destructive mapping and imaging technique the TERS system was able to confirm that a thin film of oil remains bound to the polymer after the oil is recovered. “ANFF-SA’s TERS system confirmed the presence of a key structure (the repeated S-S bonds) which makes up the backbone of the polymer,” said Dr Chalker. “This answered our fundamental question about how the oil interacts with the polymer.”

Given the low-cost of the polymer and the simplicity for remediation across large geographic locations, Dr Chalker hopes the new polymer will motivate developing nations to take action in controlling crude oil spills and mercury pollution. “We have plans to manufacture the material in South Australia,” said Dr Chalker, “and we are working with local engineers to be able to manufacture the polymer on a scale that would be required for global exports.”

Dr Chalker and his team are working with researchers, industrial partners, investors, environmental agencies, governments and a number of not-for-profit firms to deploy the novel polymer technology at locations plagued by crude oil spills or mercury pollution.

With more than $10M in cutting-edge equipment and technical expertise, ANFF-SA is a world-class micro and nanofabrication facility providing industry and academics with training and access to infrastructure which supports high quality research.

ANFF-SA is a catalyst for industry partnerships with the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute and Flinders University’s Nanoscience Centre and Tonsley Manufacturing Precinct.

Together, we are developing the skills and innovation of Australia’s leading industry and research sectors, to help shape the future of employment, health monitoring, environmental management and manufacturing.