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Cactus 'points' the way for oil spill clean-up

Xinhua | Updated: 2013-08-07 15:45

BEIJING -- Inspired by prickly cacti, Chinese scientists have developed a new technique for removing oil from water, which could have applications in oil spill clean-up work.

An article published in the online scientific journal Nature Communications describes the study by Jiang Lei and his co-workers at the Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, whose creation of copper spike arrays have proved to be highly efficient in absorbing oil during experiments.

Jiang said the idea came from cacti needles, which can collect water by condensing moisture from the air and directing it to the root of the spines, an ability that keeps the plant hydrated in arid environments, like deserts.

Simulating cacti spines, researchers used substances with an affinity for oil, not water, to build conical spikes with a rough surface. These spikes have proven capable of catching micro-sized oil droplets in water.

"Oil separation using such needle arrays has an efficiency rate of over 99 percent, and compared with conventional methods, our technique can be used continuously and is more environmentally friendly," Jiang told Xinhua.

Researchers expect that the technique could help clean water pollution caused by oil spills and be applied in industrial sectors, including those involved in oily industrial effluent disposal and tertiary oil recovery.