Five years on and questions still remain over the Deepwater Horizons oil spill, where millions of gallons of crude oil were spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps the most pressing is how oil might be best cleaned up should such an environmental catastrophe occur in the future. A team of researchers in Australia claim to have found an answer, developing a special porous material that is claimed to soak up to 33 times its own weight in oil and organic solvents.

Scientists all around the world have been hard at work on materials that might aid in the aftermath of events such as the BP disaster. Stainless steel oil-trapping meshes, super-absorbent polymers and floating polythylene pads are just a few examples that have shown recent promise. Among this global task force is a team of researchers from Australia's Deakin University, who have been chipping away at a solution for some time.

The researchers found some initial success two years ago when they developed a boron nitride powder known as "white graphite," which exhibited oil-absorption properties. While promising, there was still a major hurdle to overcome, namely the fact that powder can't simply be tossed onto an oil slick. So the team set about working out how the special powder could be bound to a sponge to soak up oil, separating it from the water in the process.

Their approach involved breaking the boron nitride powder down intro atomically thin nanosheets, consisting of tiny flakes measuring only several nanometers apiece in thickness. The flakes also bear microscopic holes that serve to boost the material's surface area per gram to the size of five and a half tennis courts.

"The pores in the nanosheets provide the surface area to absorb oils and organic solvents up to 33 times its own weight," says Dr Weiwei Lei, lead researcher of the team's paper.

In addition, the material is said to be flame-resistant and suitable for use in flexible and transparent electrical and heat insulation, along with other potential applications. The researchers are now looking for industry partners to begin trialing the technology, where they say it could be adapted to form ultralight aerogels and membranes to clean up oil spills.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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