Researchers at Rice University and Penn State University have discovered that adding a dash of boron to carbon while creating nanotubes turns them into solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have an astounding ability to absorb oil spilled in water.
That’s one of a range of potential innovations for the material created in a single step. The team found for the first time that boron puts kinks and elbows into the nanotubes as they grow and promotes the formation of covalent bonds, which give the sponges their robust qualities.
To demonstrate, Hashim dropped the sponge into a dish of water with used motor oil floating on top. The sponge soaked it up. He then put a match to the material, burned off the oil and returned the sponge to the water to absorb more. The robust sponge can be used repeatedly and stands up to abuse; he said a sample remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab. The sponge can also store the oil for later retrieval, he said.
The establishment of covalent junctions between carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and the modification of their straight tubular morphology are two strategies needed to successfully synthesize nanotube-based three-dimensional (3D) frameworks exhibiting superior material properties. Engineering such 3D structures in scalable synthetic processes still remains a challenge. This work pioneers the bulk synthesis of 3D macroscale nanotube elastic solids directly via a boron-doping strategy during chemical vapour deposition, which influences the formation of atomic-scale “elbow” junctions and nanotube covalent interconnections. Detailed elemental analysis revealed that the “elbow” junctions are preferred sites for excess boron atoms, indicating the role of boron and curvature in the junction formation mechanism, in agreement with our first principle theoretical calculations. Exploiting this material’s ultra-light weight, super-hydrophobicity, high porosity, thermal stability, and mechanical flexibility, the strongly oleophilic sponge-like solids are demonstrated as unique reusable sorbent scaffolds able to efficiently remove oil from contaminated seawater even after repeated use.