Of all materials of the future, few have captured the imagination more than carbon nanotubes. Science fiction fans have seen nanotubes as the key to building the stuff of our dreams – from space elevators to cyborg-like synthetic muscles. At the same time, practical, everyday uses have been popping up all over the place, creating a list so long in needed its own Wikipedia page.
Well, add another one to the list: cleaning up oil spills. It turns out that, if you add boron into the mix, it creates elbows in the tubes. So, instead of the traditional one-dimensional alignment we’ve already been getting so much fun out of, the fibers get connected together into a three dimensional sponge. Having created a sponge, scientists logically put it to work doing what sponge-like structures do best – soaking stuff up. Made up of carbon, it attracts oil and repels water, and it can absorb up to 100 times its weight in oil according to Bobby Sumpter at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The problem is this: I never doubted that scientists had developed all sorts of new methods to clean up oil over the last few decades, with this being just the latest innovation. We heard about a lot of them during the BP oil spill, remember? The issue was that the oil industry wasn’t buying. They hadn’t upgraded their cleanup technology in thirty years (if that), and still haven’t after the disaster. Had to spend the money on trying to figure out how to dig deeper, right? And if they’re not going to buy, and our governments are all cutting costs as it is, who’s going to buy the technology that scientists develop?
This is sort of a general problem, with this topic just one example. There is a lot of great science being done at our increasingly cash-strapped research facilities, but if no one is willing to put it to use, the public benefit that science promises will never be fulfilled. And, in the end, congressmen will see the money as “wasted” and cut the projects. Consider all the loose campaign rhetoric about cutting the Department of Energy. Well, Oak Ridge gets 80% of its funding from the DOE, and there are plenty of people in Congress clueless enough to actually follow through on cutbacks. The stimulus everyone says didn’t work these days? Yeah, more than $100 million from it went to Oak Ridge, mainly for a new Chemical and Materials building.