Advanced Aerogel Composites for Oil Remediation and Recovery

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Plata, Desiree
Ferguson, Lee

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Oil spills in marine environments often damage marine and coastal life if not remediated rapidly and efficiently. In spite of the strict enforcement of environmental legislations (i.e., Oil Pollution Act 1990) following the Exxon Valdez oil spill (June 1989; the second biggest oil spill in U.S. history), the Macondo well blowout disaster (April 2010) released 18 times more oil. Strikingly, the response methods used to contain and capture spilled oil after both accidents were nearly identical, note that more than two decades separate Exxon Valdez (1989) and Macondo well (2010) accidents.

The goal of this dissertation was to investigate new advanced materials (mechanically strong aerogel composite blankets-Cabot® Thermal Wrap™ (TW) and Aspen Aerogels® Spaceloft® (SL)), and their applications for oil capture and recovery to overcome the current material limitations in oil spill response methods. First, uptake of different solvents and oils were studied to answer the following question: do these blanket aerogel composites have competitive oil uptake compared to state-of-the-art oil sorbents (i.e., polyurethane foam-PUF)? In addition to their competitive mechanical strength (766, 380, 92 kPa for Spaceloft, Thermal Wrap, and PUF, respectively), our results showed that aerogel composites have three critical advantages over PUF: rapid (3-5 min.) and high (more than two times of PUF’s uptake) oil uptake, reusability (over 10 cycles), and oil recoverability (up to 60%) via mechanical extraction. Chemical-specific sorption experiments showed that the dominant uptake mechanism of aerogels is adsorption to the internal surface, with some contribution of absorption into the pore space.

Second, we investigated the potential environmental impacts (energy and chemical burdens) associated with manufacturing, use, and disposal of SL aerogel and PUF to remove the oil (i.e., 1 m3 oil) from a location (i.e., Macondo well). Different use (single and multiple use) and end of life (landfill, incinerator, and waste-to-energy) scenarios were assessed, and our results demonstrated that multiple use, and waste-to-energy choices minimize the energy and material use of SL aerogel. Nevertheless, using SL once and disposing via landfill still offers environmental and cost savings benefits relative to PUF, and so these benefits are preserved irrespective of the oil-spill-response operator choices.

To inform future aerogel manufacture, we investigated the different laboratory-scale aerogel fabrication technologies (rapid supercritical extraction (RSCE), CO2 supercritical extraction (CSCE), alcohol supercritical extraction (ASCE)). Our results from anticipatory LCA for laboratory-scaled aerogel fabrication demonstrated that RSCE method offers lower cumulative energy and ecotoxicity impacts compared to conventional aerogel fabrication methods (CSCE and ASCE).

The final objective of this study was to investigate different surface coating techniques to enhance oil recovery by modifying the existing aerogel surface chemistries to develop chemically responsive materials (switchable hydrophobicity in response to a CO2 stimulus). Our results showed that studied surface coating methods (drop casting, dip coating, and physical vapor deposition) were partially successful to modify surface with CO2 switchable chemical (tributylpentanamidine), likely because of the heterogeneous fiber structure of the aerogel blankets. A possible solution to these non-uniform coatings would be to include switchable chemical as a precursor during the gel preparation to chemically attach the switchable chemical to the pores of the aerogel.

Taken as a whole, the implications of this work are that mechanical deployment and recovery of aerogel composite blankets is a viable oil spill response strategy that can be deployed today. This will ultimately enable better oil uptake without the uptake of water, potential reuse of the collected oil, reduced material and energy burdens compared to competitive sorbents (e.g., PUF), and reduced occupational exposure to oiled sorbents. In addition, sorbent blankets and booms could be deployed in coastal and open-ocean settings, respectively, which was previously impossible.





Karatum, Osman (2016). Advanced Aerogel Composites for Oil Remediation and Recovery. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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