We’ve all seen those awful photos from the aftermath of an oil spill—animals coated in tar, water pushing thick black sludge onto the shores, you know what I’m talking about. Workers always come to try and clean the messes, but it’s hard to imagine a more difficult job as you watch them painstakingly clean ducks, one feather at a time. In fact, some environmentalists think it’s better to let oil-soaked birds die, as only an estimated 1% of them manage to survive even after a cleaning. I’ll admit that after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil debacle, I was wary of anything that came from those waters. Obviously, the best approach would be to stop drilling and spilling oil all over the place, but next to that, we clearly need a better system for cleaning spilled oil. Now, thanks to some smart folks and the infinite powers of science, we’ve got it.
State University of New York Materials Science and Engineering Department professor Perena Gouma came up with something called a “nanogrid,” which is essentially a metal net made from a copper tungsten oxide. When sunlight activates the grid, it actually breaks down oil and leaves only biodegradable compounds behind.
The nanogrids are made via a self-assembly process during nanomanufacturing. The nanofibrous mats are placed on metal mesh and then heated, causing metal clusters to melt and spread inside the nanofibers. They then become crystal nanowires, and oxidize into linked ceramic nanoparticles. Once completed, they can break down hydrocarbons without contaminating the surrounding water. While it’s not the first, or only, photocatalyst ever invented, it works in water on a long-term basis, which is a first. The grids can be used again and again on oil spills big or small.
Eventually, they might be used to clean water contaminated by fracking, which isn’t something Battlestar Galactica characters do, but rather a controversial process of natural gas extraction from layers of shale rock. Fracking allows gas to be pulled from places once too deep to access, and works by injecting water into the shale to fracture it and release gas. Environmentalists want to ban this method because it contaminates ground water and has other potentially serious environmental consequences, such as surface and air contamination, and exposure to hazardous chemicals. And while again, the best idea may simply be to stop fracking, it’s good to know that we might have a backup plan when it comes to mitigating the negative effects.
The nanogrid also works in the air, which means it could potentially be used for dry-cleaning and other processes that rely on chemicals. All we’d have to do is expose our clothes to light, which sounds good to me. In fact, maybe they’ll make a nanogrid for humans and we can shower on the go or skip the shower altogether. The possibilities are endless.