The Deepwater Horizon oil spill may have been catastrophic in many ways, but if there's any silver lining to the disaster it's the efforts to find better ways to better extract oil from water that emerged in the aftermath. The latest candidate to emerge in this area is a multipurpose fabric covered in tiny semi-conducting rods, affording it a unique set of properties that could see it used to deal with everything from water decontamination to wiping down your kitchen counter.

Collaborating researchers from Australia's Queensland University of Technology (QUT), RMIT and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) developed the material by starting with a commercially available nylon. This already had a seed layer of silver woven into it, which the team says made things easier when it came to adding other materials to the mix.

"We then dipped this fabric into a vat where a copper layer was electrochemically deposited onto it," says QUT's Professor Anthony O'Mullane. "Now with a copper coating, we converted the fabric into a semiconducting material with the addition of another solution that causes nanostructures to grow on the fabric's surface – the key to its enhanced properties."

When a water-oil mix is applied to the material, these nanostructures, which the researchers liken to tiny rods, retain the oil while leaving the water to run off them freely. In testing, the team says it proved effective in cleaning crude oil, olive oil and peanut oil from water, along with separating organic solvents.

Due to the addition of copper, the researchers say it also functions well as an antibacterial material. This means it could be used as a two-pronged strategy to clean up industrial waterways and water sources in remote communities, by both separating the water from waste and killing off bugs while it's at it.

And because of its semiconducting abilities, the team also claims it can work with visible light to break down organic pollutants, which are harmful compounds in waterways that nature is unable to break down on its own.

"What is particularly exciting is that it is multifunctional and can separate water from other liquids like a sieve, it is self-cleaning, antibacterial, and being a semiconductor opens up further applicability," says O'Mullane.

The researchers will further test its durability and the technology could be scaled up to tackle larger messes.

The study was published in the journal ChemPlusChem.

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