Final yr, scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological College (NTU) turned pollen – one of many plant kingdoms’ most inflexible supplies – into versatile, eco-friendly tender gel particles. Lately, a group from NTU and South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan College used these particles to create sponges that might take up oil spills, then biodegrade as soon as it has served its function. The group describes the gel-making course of as being much like cleaning soap manufacturing.

First, the scientists collected pollen grains from sunflowers coated with a naturally occurring sticky oil-based cement. These grains had been then incubated in alkaline situations for 3 days to take away the cement, leaving a gel-like inside substance behind.

That gel was freeze-dried to create a three-dimensional spongey materials, which was then heated to 392ºF (200ºC) to stabilize it. Lastly, the group coated the spongey materials with a stearic acid layer, a saturated fatty acid present in quite a few animal and vegetable fat.

Whereas the ensuing sponges every have a diameter of two in (5 cm), they might nonetheless be made significantly bigger for business functions. They’re extremely porous, and the addition of the stearic acid additionally makes them hydrophobic, which suggests they repel water. That approach, when the sponges are in oil-polluted water, they take up solely the oil – they don’t turn out to be soaked and mushy with water.

In lab assessments involving a number of sorts of solvents and oils, the sponges displayed an absorption capability similar to that of commercially accessible polypropylene absorbents. Nevertheless, in contrast to these petroleum-derived supplies, the pollen sponges are constituted of renewable matter that breaks down as soon as discarded. Every sponge could be squeezed out and reused no less than ten occasions earlier than throwing it away. The group revealed their findings on March 12, 2021, within the journal Superior Practical Supplies.

Biodegradable Sunflower Pollen Sponges Could Soak Up Oil Spills
The analysis group’s principal members, from proper to left: NTU Prof. Cho Nam-Joon, NTU analysis fellow Dr. Zhao Ze, NTU Masters scholar Deng Jingyu, and NTU Ph.D. scholar Mohammed Shahrudin Ibrahim. (Credit score: NTU Singapore)

Lead scientist Cho Nam-Joon, an NTU Professor, mentioned:

By fine-tuning the fabric properties of pollen, our group efficiently developed a sponge that may selectively goal oil in contaminated water sources and take up it. Utilizing a cloth that’s discovered abundantly in nature additionally makes the sponge inexpensive, biodegradable, and eco-friendly.

Hair can also be a great pure various to conventional dispersants used to battle oil spills. In 2019, a barbershop chain in Sydney started accumulating all of the purchasers’ lower hair, then donated it to establishments that make stuffed stockings used to soak up oil throughout oil spills.