"We thought there is an urgent need to address this issue in economically viable way," Kana M Sureshan, Associate Professor at IISER Kerala, told PTI.
Current methods of cleaning up oil spills include on-site burning, which do not efficiently remove the oil, researchers said. Moreover, there is no way to recover the spilt crude oil.
"We have made small balls of cellulose and dipped them in a solution of the gelator," Prof Sureshan said.
The gelator repels water and only absorbs the oil. It congeals the absorbed oil, which could be recovered by applying pressure or through distillation.
"We have chosen these material because the cellulose pulp is very cheap and biodegradable," said Prof Sureshan, one of the authors of the study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
Each cellulose ball can absorb oil 16 times its own weight. After the oil is recovered, the left-over pulp can be recycled, he added.
"The gelator being cheap can have a huge market potential to develop active adsorbent materials for tackling oil spills," said Soumyajit Roy, associate professor at Chemical Science Department of IISER Kolkata.
"However exact cost calculations, scaling up the synthesis of the gelator coupled with scaled up pilot studies would be important to realise the exact translation to industry in my opinion," said Prof Roy, who was not involved in the research.
The researchers, including Annamalai Prathap from IISER Kerala, have filed a patent for their product in India and are planning to file international patents soon.
The Indian coast guard and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) have shown interest to mass produce the material with the help of government support, Prof Sureshan said.
The researchers tested their material on various crude oil varieties from various parts of the world including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
All crude oils were instantaneously absorbed by the material, researchers said.
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