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Oil-loving sponge can soak 100 times its weight

Image: Image of sponge
This carbon nanotube sponge created at Rice University can hold more than 100 times its weight in oil. Oil can be squeezed out or burned off, and the sponge reused.Jeff Fitlow / Rice University

Scientists have fashioned a sponge out of carbon nanotubes and a bit of boron that hates water so much it absolutely refuses to soak up a single drop. But it loves oil. This, in turn, makes it ideal for cleaning up oil spilled into the oceans.

What’s more, the sponge can conduct electricity and be controlled with a magnet. That’s key, because when the sponges are dropped onto the ocean surface to soak up an oily mess, they essentially can be reeled in with giant magnets.

The sponges are more than 99 percent air, meaning they are extremely low density, a property that allows them to absorb more than 100 times their weight in oil

Once recovered, the oil can be squeezed out of the sponge and used, Rice University graduate student Daniel Hashim explains in the video below. In fact, the oil doesn’t even need to be squeezed out. Simply burn it while it is still in the sponge and the sponge itself remains intact and can be reused.

Since we live in a world where oil is likely to remain an essential ingredient in the global economy for the foreseeable future, a new technology to clean up spills and recover the resource is a welcome development.

A paper on the sponge was published April 13 in Scientific Reports. More details are available from Rice University.

--Via Scientific American

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website  and follow him on Twitter . For more of our Future of Technology  series, watch the featured video below.