This Swimsuit Cleans the Ocean as You Swim

California scientists have created an absorbent nanosponge material that can be sewn into swimwear and wet suits to soak up water pollution.
(Photo: Tim Wimborne/Reuters)
Oct 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Letting an engineer design a bathing suit may seem like some sort of fashion nightmare. But when scientists and designers teamed up to create the Sponge Suit, they came up with beachwear that cleans the water as you swim.

The swimsuit is padded with a sucrose-based material that repels water but sucks up harmful contaminants. The husband-and-wife engineering team that invented the material won an international wearable technology competition and will be recognized this week in Rome at the Maker Faire.

The material could also be sewn into wet suits, letting surfers help clean the ocean as they catch waves, said Mihri Ozkan, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Riverside. Ozkan said she and her husband, materials engineer Cengiz Ozkan, have been working on the material for about four years and were originally inspired to devise a new way to clean up ocean oil spills.

The swimsuit’s net-like white shell surface is made of a flexible 3-D-printed plastic that holds a sugar-based material called the sponge. The material is porous and can absorb contaminants up to 25 times its weight. When the sponge is full, it can be removed from the suit and heated to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit to liquefy the material. The contaminants are removed, and the rest is recycled into a new sponge.

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“The sponge material is made from sugar, and it is an environmentally safe material,” said Mihri Ozkan. “Any contaminant collected by the sponge will be trapped inside the nanoporous architecture of the sponge, and nothing will touch your skin.”

The design weighs less than two ounces and is as thin as a hair. The Ozkans hope the suit will eventually be mass-produced, as the sponge material only costs about 15 cents per gram. “We aim for a future where everyone, with any shape and form of swimming outfit, can contribute to the cleanliness of the seas by a sports activity or simply a leisurely summer vacation,” they wrote on their website.

The material has been tested in the lab, and the Ozkans are looking for partners to commercialize the technology. “We did repeated testing of sponge material ourselves, and we have videos of our sponge material cleaning light and heavy oil-like contaminants from water,” said Cengiz Ozkan.

The Ozkans envision a day when people could drop off their swimsuits at a dry cleaning–like store to recycle old pads and swap in new ones.