In 1989, Mike Chung became interested in how to clean up massive oil spills. As a researcher with Exxon Corporation, Chung participated in discussions about how to clean up the hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil spilled off the coast of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez. Unfortunately, every solution had drawbacks.
“One common approach to clean an oil spill is to use containment booms to physically corral the oil in one location, then either collect it with a skimmer, or burn it in a controlled manner. Another approach is to use dispersants that mix oil and water, much like soap we use to wash oil off our hands. There are problems with both of these approaches: the first doesn’t collect all the oil, and the second leaves pollutants in the environment, potentially hurting wildlife and seafood supply,” says Chung.
Chung joined Penn State’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering later that same year, where he focused his research on synthesizing plastics and other materials with unique chemical and physical properties. Then in 2012, the largest oil spill in history occurred after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast. Chung decided to devote some of his research to oil spill cleanup solutions under the sponsorship of the Ben Franklin Foundation.
“More than two decades had passed, and we were still using the same solutions to address large-scale oil spills. But I knew there had to be a material that could better address the problem. I remember back in the 1980s, wondering if there could be some way to pick up the oil from the surface selectively,” he says.
Chung and his research team began scouring the world of materials to find something that would be more effective than dispersants and containment booms. One thing they looked at was disposable diapers, which contain a material that behaves in a way that they thought might work well for oil spills.