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Oil-absorbing material based on UConn research

by Cindy Weiss - June 23, 2008

Nature Nanotechnology published two reports on May 30 by scientists in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In addition to the paper by the research group of chemistry professor Fotios Papadimitrikapolous, the journal included a report that scientists have created a membrane than can absorb up to 20 times its weight in oil.

The research, led by an MIT scientist, included the work of collaborator and co-author Steven L. Suib, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and department head, and his former graduate student, Jikang Yuan, Ph.D. ’07, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at MIT.

The material used in the study was initially developed at UConn by Yuan, Suib says. It is a membrane or paper that can be recycled many times and has applications in oil recovery and the filtering and purification of water.

It is made from an interwoven mesh of nanowires.

The membrane was the subject of an earlier report in Nature, whose editors dubbed the material “protean” because it can be used in so many ways, Suib says. It can be folded, cut, or written on. It has potential applications to stop bleeding and to clean metals out of fuels, and is a conductor.

Steven Suib, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.
Steven Suib, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Chemistry.
Photo by Daniel Buttrey

UConn’s Center for Science and Technology Commercialization filed an application for a patent on this material, titled “Manganese Oxide Nanowires, Films and Membranes and Methods of Making” in 2005. The technology is now patent pending and available for licensing.

In the latest report, the material was modified to create a super-hydrophobic – water-repelling – characteristic to greatly enhance its ability to absorb oil from water. Its properties would enable it to absorb industrial discharges from sea water, the report notes.

“Given the global scale of severe water pollution arising from oil spills and industrial organic pollutants,” the authors wrote, “this study may prove particularly useful in the design of recyclable absorbents with significant environmental impact.”

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