The Big Answer to Wrangling Oil Spills Could Be in This Tiny Mesh

Inspired by a lotus leaf, researchers have come up with a potentially powerful solution to saving ocean life after a petroleum disaster.

Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

With nearly a quarter of America’s oil delivered by oceangoing tankers and hundreds of offshore rigs pumping crude from below the seafloor, oil and water do mix, with unfortunate regularity.

When they do, the environmental impacts can be devastating, and the cleanup a decades-long endeavor.

This mesh, which is covered in a coating invented at The Ohio State University, captures oil (red) while water (blue) passes through. (Photo: Jo McCulty/Ohio State University)

So it’s hard to believe that a tiny piece of stainless-steel mesh sitting in a lab could be the answer to reducing the messes left behind by oil spills.

But that’s just what its inventors, scientists at Ohio State University, claim to be true. They say the material traps oil but lets water pass through, thanks to a nontoxic, oil-repelling coating on its surface.

“Oil contamination is a major issue, so the goal here is to separate oil from water,” Bharat Bhushan, a professor of mechanical engineering, said in a statement. “We’re doing it on a small scale, and we believe that it can be scaled up so that in a larger scale, this technology can be applied.”

To test the material, the researchers mixed water with oil in a beaker before pouring the mixture onto the mesh. The water filtered right through while the oil collected on top. Thanks to the coating, the oil rolled off the mesh and into a separate beaker.

“You could create a large fabric with a wire mesh with this coating, and this could filter out the oil rather easily, depending on size of fabric you use, and how you mechanize it,” Bhushan said in the statement. “It should be relatively simple to do that.”

If the mesh could scale up to handle a real-world oil spill, it might be a welcome alternative to more destructive cleanup methods, such as use of the chemical Corexit, which is proving toxic to marine organisms.

It might also be cheap. Building a large mesh net could be done for less than a dollar per square foot, researcher Philip Brown estimated in the statement.

Bushan’s inspiration for the coating came from nature itself. He has been studying lotus leaves for the past 10 years. Their unique texture gives them water repellency unmatched in nature—great for a plant living in typically muddy habitats.

“We’ve studied so many natural surfaces, from leaves to butterfly wings and shark skin, to understand how nature solves certain problems,” Bhushan said in the statement. “Now we want to go beyond what nature does, in order to solve new problems.”

To help nature “repel synthetic materials like oils,” Brown said, “we need to bring in another level of chemistry that nature doesn’t have access to.”

The research papers on the mesh and the coating were published in the February and March issues of the journal Scientific Reports.