Monday, March 27, 2017

Oil Spills - A Messy Topic

            Today our society and world depend heavily on fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the worldwide demand for oil has will hover around 98 million barrels a day throughout 2017. However, this estimate accounts for the amount of oil needed worldwide assuming that none is lost in harvesting, production, or transport. Yet, as I am sure you have guessed, this is never the case. Oil spills, although accidental, occur rather frequently. They vary significantly in their size but are all similar in their devastating and lasting effects to our health, our economy, and especially the environment. The most recent major oil spill was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also known as the “BP oil spill,” that took place in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. Experts estimate that about 4-5 million barrels of oil were dispersed throughout the Gulf of Mexico having drastic effects on its ecosystem. The major issue is that there was no efficient way to clean up the mess that had been made especially since not all the oil was residing on the water’s surface. Dispersants, a substance that emulsifies oil, were applied so as to increase the rate that bacteria would break down the oil. Other attempts to remove the oil include manual removal and simply burning it off. All these methods however could not repair the damage that had been done nor save the oil for reuse. It was this experience that inspired scientists to begin work on an easier and more sustainable method to clean up oil. The culmination of this work is represented by the Oleo Sponge.

The Oleo Sponge is a newly designed foam material that is capable of extracting oil from water. It was developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory about 25 miles southwest of Chicago. Although the development of this sponge utilized the contributions of over 2,100 scientists and researchers, none were more important than Seth Darling and Jeffrey Elam, 2 Argonne chemists.

Dr. Seth Darling
Dr. Jeffrey Elam
It was these two who developed the technology possible to create the Oleo Sponge. Known as Sequential Infiltration Synthesis (SIS), their technique allows them to infuse hard metal oxide atoms into complicated nanostructures. These two, possibly with other collaborating minds, adapted this technique to create a sponge with a layer of lipophilic molecules that attract oil instead of water. Another key aspect of the Oleo Sponge is that both it and the oil are reusable. Previous methods of oil collection ruined the oil so that it had to be discarded. The Oleo Sponge can be wrung out again and again without deteriorating. The oil can then be reused at a later time or discarded appropriately.

As for the creative process, it is a clear process of trial-and-error to develop the Oleo Sponge. The more interesting aspect of the sponge is the motivation behind it. In addition to the motivation to develop the sponge, one must also investigate the motivation behind the knowledge/technique that made the sponge possible. SIS was a revolutionary breakthrough by Darling and Elam. This development clearly demonstrates the 3 crucial components of motivation involved in the production of creative works as explained by the Collins and Amabile reading “Motivation and Creativity.” They state that one must have “intrinsic task motivation, domain-relevant skills (expertise and talent in the task domain), and creativity-relevant process (cognitive skills and work styles conducive to the production of novelty).” I believe it is safe to assume that both Darling and Elam have intrinsic motivation to preserve the earth and their environment. They demonstrate domain expertise with their field of with their fundamental comprehensive understanding of how different molecules will combine together. Finally, their technique demonstrates a clear sense of creativity because it is a new type of technique that has never been used before, even though the knowledge has been around for some time. All in all, Darling, Elam, and the rest of the scientists responsible for the Oleo Sponge are credited with a revolutionary product that can be described as creative innovation. 



  1. This invention in going to be an incredibly helpful tool when our world is faced with major oil spills in the future. This invention reminds me of my blog post, "Hipster Farming," that discusses a revolutionary way to grow produce in any climate or season in order to reduce environmental impacts of growing and transporting out of season produce across the world. McNamara and Freidman, similar to Darling and Elam, have expertise in their task domain due to their experience with hydroponics and they both have intrinsic motivation as they are both environmentalists. Lastly, Darling and Elam definitely display the kind go creativity necessary to move along the scientific industry. Based on the Dunbar study, I am sure they had meetings with collaborator to go over their data and discuss inconsistencies. This is a very important step in creating insight in scientific realms because it causes people to use self-skepticism to go beyond their original thoughts.

  2. I heard about this sponge and think it is a great concept! I love that Darling and Elam were able to identify and solve a serious problem we face with our massive oil consumption. I also think it's interesting that they used a "trial and error" process to get the final product, I wonder how their backgrounds in science were able to contribute to this process. I'm also curious on whether or not the sponge absorbs water, or just oil. If water is absorbed, would this slow the process of reusing the oil since you'd have to wait for the two to separate? Overall I think it's a very innovative and useful invention that could potentially make a big impact on the environment as well as the economy in the case of a future oil spill.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.