Recovering marine oil spills may soon become simple, efficient and cost-effective, thanks to a compound (gelator) developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Thiruvananthapuram. A team led by Dr. Kana M. Sureshan from the School of Chemistry used glucose as a starting material and through several chemical reactions produced compounds (gelators) that selectively congeal oil, including crude oil, from an oil-water mixture.
Unlike other alternatives, the compounds, which are in a powder form, can be easily applied over oil-water mixture and do not cause any environmental damage. The results based on laboratory studies were published recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
“Unlike current methods, our gelator can recover oil from oil-water mixture and the gelator can be reused several times,” says Dr. Sureshan. “But in the case of crude oil, the gelator can’t be recycled. So our aim is to make the gelator cheaper and more efficient.”
The compound molecule is partly hydrophobic and partly hydrophilic. While the hydrophilic part helps in self-assembling to form gelator fibres, the hydrophobic part is responsible for its diffusion into the oil layer. “To achieve better diffusion of the molecule into the oil phase and enhance the oil recovery we increased the hydrophobicity. This was done by adding an aromatic/alkyl group at some part of the molecule,” he says.
Since the outer part of the fibre is hydrophobic, oil tends to gets into the spongy network made of fibres. Once inside the fibre network, oil loses fluidity and becomes a gel. As the self-assembly is strong, the gel maintains its structure and rigidity even under pressure.