Superhero Supergelators!

Ever had one of those mornings when you spill your morning cuppa or breakfast soup while stumbling out of the kitchen still half-asleep? You can easily fix this with a wet kitchen towel or a dab of detergent. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work when oil is accidentally spilled out at sea.

This was what happened in January this year; a collision of two vessels in Singapore waters resulted in 300 tonnes of oil spilled in the surrounding waters – which took roughly 7 months to clean up!

Authorities activated dispersants, as well as placed skimmers and booms to contain the oil patches in the affected waters. This situation only recently stabilised in August.

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Common methods in remedying oil spills although useful, have several limitations. Ever watched your grandmother skim a layer of oil from a pot of soup and realise the soup was still oily? That’s precisely how inefficient a skimmer is.

Methods such as using dispersants not only introduce contamination to the sea but also do not remove oil from water, which could harm marine life at large (yes, this includes our favourite crabs and stingrays and the ultimately adorable Nemo and Dory too). The other methods could use some speed.

Understanding that both speed and the separation of oil from water are critical to clearing oil spills since waves would spread the oil spillage further, A*STAR researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) came up with supergelators as a solution!

Supergelators are small organic molecules that stack upon each other to form a group of thick nanofibers. These nanofibers interweave together and form a 3D network. It is almost like fitting Lego blocks one on top of another to form a tower, and then joining those towers together to build a mighty fortress! But how exactly does this intertwined network of supergelators help to clean up oil spills?

When supergelators come into contact with oil, they solidify to form a gel-like substance, trapping the oil within the 3D mesh. Imagine making agar-agar jelly in a tray and waiting for the agar to solidify – this is how supergelators react with oil.

It is worth noting that existing methods (if you are really interested, the technical term is called polymer solidification) take hours to trap oil, supergelators can do the job in as quickly as 10 -15 minutes – almost ten times faster!

Whopping time savings aside, supergelators are also able to absorb substances up to 17-55 times their weight, allowing for even quicker and simpler removal of surface oil spills!

What else, you ask? Supergelators cause no pollution or danger to humans and marine life and they work extremely well even on highly weathered crude oil. Here’s the bonus: the oil collected from the oil spill can be reused after distillation!

The supergelators come in two different forms, which can better react to different types of oil spills; a powder form to target thick, viscous oil layers, and a liquid form to handle thin layers of oil spills. Think packets of agar powder – that is exactly how portable and convenient it is to transport powder supergelators from one place to another!

The IBN team is still conducting more research to develop them for commercial use. Effective, efficient and environmentally safe, supergelators are today’s oil spillage superheroes!