I-Corps: Biodegradable 3D-Printed Oil Absorbents
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The broader impact/commercial potential of this I-Corps project lies in the core technology''s ability to establish a new paradigm for oil spill cleanup that employs on-demand manufacturing of absorbent structures customized to match the specific properties of the oil to be collected. Oil spills are typically expensive to remediate due to the equipment, time, and manpower required. Consequently, most remediation approaches are focused on large-scale spill events. However, these account for only approximately 5% of the total pollution in waterways. Small-scale spills occur much more frequently but are often ignored because existing cleanup technologies are inefficient to deploy. The 3D printed oil absorbent technology to be explored in this project uniquely address this need by delivering customized absorbent capacity and the ability to be produced on-demand to maximize recovery for a broad range incidents via customization toward the unique combination of oil properties, quantity, and environmental and weather conditions at each spill site.This I-Corps project seeks to explore the commercial potential of a family of 3D printable oleophilic materials capable of absorbing and retaining oil within specially designed internal pore networks. These absorbent materials also leverage shape memory behavior, making it possible for the absorbed oil to be extracted and recovered by heating the material to a prescribed temperature at which it automatically contracts to squeeze out the collected oil. In this way, the absorbent materials can be made to function like a self-wringing sponge. These materials are produced using poly(lactic acid), an inexpensive commodity biopolymer that is degradable and environmentally friendly. This technology emerged from fundamental research performed in a prior NSF-sponsored project, where optimal pore network designs and processing conditions were identified to maximize recovery of different petroleum samples dispersed in water. 3D printing enables on-demand production of designer absorbent architectures that match properties of different petroleum fractions, maximize selectivity against water, and permit either strong encapsulation or easy recovery of the collected oil.