Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have developed a new material that can absorb up to 90 times its own weight in spilled oil and then be squeezed out like a sponge and reused.

Most commercial products for soaking up oil, called “sorbents”, are only good for a single use – the discarded sorbents and oil are usually incinerated.

The new material consists of a simple foam made of polyurethane or polyimide plastics, coated with “oil-loving” silane molecules. When engineered with just the right amount of silane, the foam can repeatedly soak up and release oil with no significant changes in capacity.

Once the oil is released, both the sponge and captured oil can then be re-used.

The research team is now working to optimise the manufacturing process for scaling up.