Scientists in Arizona and New Jersey are reporting that aerogels (right), a super-lightweight solid sometimes called “frozen smoke,” may serve as the ultimate sponge for capturing oil from wastewater and effectively soaking up environmental oil spills.

In a study published last month in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, Robert Pfeffer, PhD, a professor of chemical engineering at Arizona State University, and colleagues emphasize that the environmental challenges of oil contamination go beyond widely publicized maritime oil spills like the Exxon Valdez incident.

Experts estimate people dump more than 200 million gallons of used oil into sewers, streams and backyards each year, resulting in polluted wastewater that’s difficult to treat.

While there are many different sorbent materials for removing used oil (i.e., activated carbon), they are often costly and inefficient.

Hydrophobic silica aerogels are highly porous and absorbent material, and researchers speculated they would make an excellent oil sponge.

Dr. Pfeffer and his colleagues packed a batch of tiny aerogel beads into a vertical column and exposed them to flowing water that contained soybean oil to simulate the filtration process at a wastewater treatment plant. The beads absorbed up to seven times their weight and removed oil from the wastewater at high efficiency—better than many conventional sorbent materials.

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