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IBN’s smart oil-scavenging material forms 3D net to trap oil molecules


Singapore, June 17, 2016 – Large-scale oil spills, where hundreds of tons of petroleum products are accidentally released into the oceans, not only have devastating effects on the environment, but have significant socio-economic impact as well.[1]

Current techniques of cleaning up oil spills are not very efficient and may even cause further pollution or damage to the environment. These methods, which include the use of toxic detergent-like compounds called dispersants or burning of the oil slick, result in incomplete removal of the oil. The oil molecules remain in the water over long periods and may even be spread over a larger area as they are carried by wind and waves. Further, burning can only be applied to fresh oil slicks of at least 3 millimeters thick, and this process would also cause secondary environmental pollution.

In a bid to improve the technology utilized by cleanup crews to manage and contain such large spills, researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR have invented a smart oil-scavenging material or supergelators that could help clean up oil spills efficiently and rapidly to prevent secondary pollution.

These supergelators are derived from highly soluble small organic molecules, which instantly self-assemble into nanofibers to form a 3D net that traps the oil molecules so that they can be removed easily from the surface of the water.

“Marine oil spills have a disastrous impact on the environment and marine life, and result in an enormous economic burden on society. Our rapid-acting supergelators offer an effective cleanup solution that can help to contain the severe environmental damage and impact of such incidents in the future,” said IBN Executive Director Professor Jackie Y. Ying.

Motivated by the urgent need for a more effective oil spill control solution, the IBN researchers developed new compounds that dissolve easily in environmentally friendly solvents and gel rapidly upon contact with oil. The supergelator molecules arrange themselves into a 3D network, entangling the oil molecules into clumps that can then be easily skimmed off the water’s surface.

“The most interesting and useful characteristic of our molecules is their ability to stack themselves on top of each other. These stacked columns allow our researchers to create and test different molecular constructions, while finding the best structure that will yield the desired properties,” said IBN Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist
Dr Huaqiang Zeng. (Animation: Click to see how the supergelators stack themselves into columns.)

IBN’s supergelators have been tested on various types of weathered and unweathered crude oil in seawater, and have been found to be effective in solidifying all of them. The supergelators take only minutes to solidify the oil at room temperature for easy removal from water. In addition, tests carried out by the research team showed that the supergelator was not toxic to human cells, as well as zebrafish embryos and larvae. The researchers believe that these qualities would make the supergelators suitable for use in large oil spill areas.

The Institute is looking for industrial partners to further develop its technology for commercial use.

Video: Click to watch the supergelators in action.

Reference:


1. C. Ren, G. H. B. Ng, H. Wu, K.-H. Chan, J. Shen, C. Teh, J. Y. Ying and H. Zeng, “Instant Room-Temperature Gelation of Crude Oil By Chiral Organogelators,” Chemistry of Materials, 28 (2016) 4001. See article


Images:


Image 1: The IBN research team who invented the smart oil-scavenging material (clockwise from bottom left: Dr Changliang Ren, Dr Hong Wu, Dr Jie Shen, Dr Huaqiang Zeng and Prof Jackie Y. Ying). © Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology


Image 2: 3D nanofiber net formed by the supergelators to trap oil molecules. © Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology


Image 3: Formation of the supergelator fiber network. © Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology


Media Contacts:


Elena Tan  Nidyah Sani 
Phone: +65 6824 7032 Phone: +65 6824 7005
Email: elenatan@ibn.a-star.edu.sg Email: nidyah@ibn.a-star.edu.sg



About the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN)

The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) is the world’s first bioengineering and nanotechnology research institute. Established in 2003, IBN’s mission is to conduct multidisciplinary research across science, engineering, and medicine for breakthroughs to improve healthcare and quality of life. IBN’s research activities are focused on Nanomedicine, Synthetic Biosystems, Biodevices and Diagnostics, and Green Chemistry and Energy. The Institute has published over 1,100 papers in leading scientific journals, filed over 550 active patents and patent applications on its inventions, and established 10 spin-off companies. To nurture young research talents, IBN runs a Youth Research Program that offers students research attachment opportunities and exposure to biomedical research.

For more information about IBN, please visit www.ibn.a-star.edu.sg.


About the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore's lead public sector agency that spearheads economic oriented research to advance scientific discovery and develop innovative technology. Through open innovation, we collaborate with our partners in both the public and private sectors to benefit society.

As a Science and Technology Organization, A*STAR bridges the gap between academia and industry. Our research creates economic growth and jobs for Singapore, and enhances lives by contributing to societal benefits such as improving outcomes in healthcare, urban living, and sustainability.

We play a key role in nurturing and developing a diversity of talent and leaders in our Agency and Research Institutes, the wider research community and industry. A*STAR oversees 18 biomedical sciences and physical sciences and engineering research entities primarily located in Biopolis and Fusionopolis.

For more information on A*STAR, please visit www.a-star.edu.sg.



[1]The well documented BP Gulf of Mexico oil well accident in 2010 was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, with damages amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. Its wide-ranging effects on the marine ecosystem, as well as the fishing and tourism industries, can still be felt six years on.

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