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Magnetic Floating Foam Cleans Up Oil

Material made magnetic by iron nanoparticles could be used to extract oil from contaminated water

by Bethany Halford
May 21, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 21

Credit: ACS Nano
A new foam selectively absorbs oil (tinted blue) from an oil-water mixture.
Modified polyurethane foam soaks up oil (tinted blue) leaving water behind.
Credit: ACS Nano
A new foam selectively absorbs oil (tinted blue) from an oil-water mixture.

Cleaning up oil spills could one day be as simple as floating foam over them, thanks to material developed by researchers in Italy. By treating polyurethane foam with submicrometer polytetrafluoroethylene particles and iron oxide nanoparticles capped with oleic acid, a team led by Athanassia Athanassiou, Paola Calcagnile and Despina Fragouli of the Italian Institute of Technology transformed the foam from a material that repels both oil and water into one that soaks up oil, leaving purified water behind (ACS Nano, DOI: 10.1021/nn3012948). The iron oxide nanoparticles make the material magnetic so it can be moved on the surface of an oil slick without having to be touched. The researchers point out that the iron oxide is bound within the foam’s porous network by weak attractive surface forces. This, they say, makes it easy to remove the nanoparticles from the foam for recycling. Although the researchers have used the foam only on small samples to date, they note that it is made from inexpensive materials and could be scaled up to clean large oil spills.


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