"We already know what kind of polymers can absorb oil," Chung said. "Some oil is very thick and takes a long time to absorb, so we blended two polymers to provide structure with high surface area. It's a microporous structure. If you look inside there are many small holes. This morphological structure allows the viscous oil to diffuse inside, allowing for more oil to absorb through the surfaces."
The blend of two polymers — an interpenetrating polymer network of hard and soft polymers — can be optimized for different oil viscosities and other factors. The researchers have three U.S. patents on this work, and i-Petrogel is undergoing steps to become commercially produced.
During the field tests, researchers found the new polymer absorbed more than 40 times its weight in Alaska North Slope oil, double the capacity of its predecessor, Petrogel, also developed by the same Penn State researchers. The product takes on a gel-like consistency as it absorbs oil and remains at the surface. It can be readily removed using skimmers already used in clean-ups.
Previous techniques used to quell disasters like the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010 recovered about 10 percent of the oil spilled, and the recovered oil was unusable. That generated about 80,000 tons of solid waste from soiled booms, and additional liquid oil waste mixed with salt water as responders struggled to contain the estimated 200 million gallons of spilled oil.