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PETROGEL™ Technology Offers Better Way to Clean Up Oil Spills

Posted on Jun 28, 2011
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With his many years of experience working at Exxon during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, Professor T. C. (Mike) Chung, now in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is very aware of the need to safely clean up oil spills—even before the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico happened last year. He feels it’s his duty, and that of his team of researchers here at Penn State, to provide a better solution to more effectively remove, recover and clean up any oil spills that occur in the future.

The oil spill in the Gulf provided yet another reminder of the need to develop a better way to handle this type of environmental disaster. “Most of the methods used in the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were decades-old, low-tech, manpower-intensive methods, and some of the dispersants had unknown environmental consequences,” "he says. “The goal is to clean up spills in a more effective manner—while being easier on the environment.”

Chung, who has a vast background in polymer chemistry, has developed a new technology for oil recovery and cleanup. It’s called PETROGEL™ (licensing information), which Penn State has trademarked and plans to license in the near future. This new PETROGEL technology offers a unique combination of advantages over the existing oil absorbents, including high oil-absorption capability, no water absorption, fast kinetics, easy recovery from the water’s surface, no waste in natural resources, and cost-effectiveness.

It’s a low density polyolefin composition with super-absorbent properties that effectively transform an oil spill in the natural environment, such as an ocean oil spill, into a soft, solid oil-containing gel. The oil-containing gel has sufficient structural integrity to be collected and transported without difficulty. Furthermore, the gel can easily be converted to a liquid and refined as regular crude oil.

Penn State is currently seeking funding for this technology; possible sources include corporations, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Science Foundation.

Other materials used to clean up oil spills have, unfortunately, shown their limitations. Scientists have used inorganic mineral products (e.g. clay, silica, zeolites) and organic vegetable products (e.g. straw, corn cob, peat moss, wood fiber, cotton fiber) for oil absorption, although they also absorb water and become unsuitable for further processing. Most of the commercially available oil absorbents show oil recovery capability at less than five times their weight. The recovered absorbent/oil mixtures are then treated as industrial waste which needs to be either burned or buried at specially-designated dumps. Some of these dumps are near residential neighborhoods.

The difference with PETROGEL is its ability to absorb the oil, not the water, as well as more effectively release the recovered solid wastes. With PETROGEL, the resulting polyolefin/oil mixture can be treated as regular crude oil, suitable for the regular refining processes. One pound of PETROGEL is rated at 40 times absorption capacity and can recover more than five gallons of the spilled oil (currently treated as pollutants and wastes) to regular crude oil that is worth more than $15 (based on $100/barrel). “There is no waste of natural resources and no pollution in the air or water,” Chung says.

Furthermore, polyolefin products are the most inexpensive polymeric materials, with a large production capability around the world. As a conservative estimate, the production cost of new PETROGEL material may be below $2 per pound in the large-scale industrial production. “This new technology can dramatically reduce the economic and environmental impacts created by oil spills,” Chung says.

T. C. Mike Chung,