Everyone remembers the horrific BP oil spill of 2010. At first, there was widespread panic about how we could possibly clean up all of the oil in the most vital fishing port in the United States. We were exposed to unbelievably sad photos of various creatures covered in gunk. We were then informed by the media that the clean-up efforts were going extremely well, and that we were nearing conditions similar to what they were prior to the oil spill. Since that time, the non-gulf public has gone about living their lives and eating their seafood, but what most don’t realize is that the problem is far from over.
Gizmodo covered a story via Al-Jazeera that described in detail, the current unseen horrors of the gulf. All the way up through Alabama and Mississippi, they’re finding eyeless fish, clawless crabs, and shrimp with tumors. The norm for the region was that 1 out of 1,000 fish in the region had sores and deformities; the new report today claims that this number has now jumped to 1 out of 5 fish and potentially 1 out of 2!
The gulf region accounts for over 40% of all of the seafood that we eat in the U.S.! This year, though, catches from the normally abundant waters are down as much as 90%! A local fisherman was recently quoted as saying “We’re continuing to pull up oil in our nets. People who live here know better than to swim in or eat what comes out of our waters.”
Dr. Jim Cowan of the LSU Department of Oceanography said, “In my 20 years working (and) looking at somewhere between 20 and 30,000 fish, I’ve never seen anything like this.” Dr. Cowan attributes the problem not only to the drastic amounts of oil still floating around, but to the chemicals used to soak up all of the 5 million barrels of oil that were lost in the gulf.
In the heat of the moment, we had to rush to contain the spill and soak up all of the oil. The choice we went with was a toxic, mutagenic chemical that has been known to cause damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems in humans, as well as disturb the development of unborn children. It’s unbelievable that something so dangerous and deadly was our last line of defense.
Though it’s too late to reverse the shocking damage that has already been done, there was a major breakthrough this week in the search for a potential remedy for the oil remaining in the gulf, or as a future solution if this were to happen again.
Carbon nanotubes have been a hot term in science over the last couple of years because of their incredible potential capabilities. A carbon nanotube is essentially a sheet of graphene rolled up into a straw. It’s 100x stronger than steel at 1/6 of the weight! Experiments have been conducted recently using carbon nanotubes as a method of water filtration, and reducing biofilm build up.
Incredibly, researchers at Rice and Penn State Universities discovered that if you add a small amount of boron (a versatile element that is essential to life) into carbon when devising nanotubes, these new nanotubes turn into a solid, yet spongy material with a propensity to absorb large amounts of oil! The boron gives the nanotubes increased flexibility and creates the perfect hydrophobic (water resistant) and oleophyllic (oil absorbing) hybrid. This discovery floats in water, can be manipulated with magnets, and can absorb oil up to 100x it’s weight in oil!
This discovery was tested by dropping a boron treated carbon nanotube in a water and motor oil blend. The spongy material was able to immediately soak up much of the excess oil. Lead researcher Daniel Hashim then removed the nanotube and lit it on fire, burning all the oil out, but keeping the spongy tube in tact.
Hashim said that this process can be repeated 10,000 times with the nanontubes still retaining their elastic and absorbing properties! The oil can also be removed by hand to be salvaged for future use! Check out the short but fascinating video below.
Hashim thinks that enivronmental clean-up capabilities are just the beginning, saying that, “We could use these materials to make more efficient and lighter batteries. We could use them as scaffolds for bone-tissue regeneration. We even could impregnate the nanotube sponge with polymers to fabricate robust and light composites for the automobile and plane industries.” Rice Scientist Pulickel Ajayan added, “I don’t think anybody has created anything like this before, it’s spectacular.”
Oil naturally seeps out of oceans and lakes all the time, and we’ve never had a cost-effective and viable solution for controlling this. This discovery can help us to make our waters cleaner than they ever have been before. Perhaps we can even harvest and reuse what was thought to be a lost energy source.
The research released by Al-Jazeera was obviously very disheartening, but it’s fantastic to see such a relative breakthrough occur almost simultaneously. All it took was a little scientific curiosity to discover potential that has been around forever. This story makes you wonder what other kind of amazing possibilities lurk beneath the surface, waiting to be uncovered. Who ever said science isn’t cool?
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