The most commonly used clean-up techniques after an oil spill are in-situ burning, mechanical methods (booms, skimming, and vacuums), and chemical dispersants and/or sorbent materials. Each technique possesses advantages and disadvantages that dictate their use in various oil-spill scenarios. One of the most successful, cost-effective, and versatile methods is the use of porous sorbent materials to remove oil from the surface of a body of water (i.e., an oil absorbing sponge). However, the oil selectivity, reusability, safety, and lack of biodegradability of these synthetic sorbent materials are of significant concern. The goal of this project is to prepare and explore an environmentally friendly, biodegradable oil absorbing sponge for enhanced oil recovery after an oil spill. Different polymer-based materials will be synthesized and characterized in terms of their mechanical and oil-absorbing properties and their biodegradability. In addition to addressing this need for improved environmentally friendly methods to clean up an oil spill, these research activities will train graduate students who will benefit from an interdisciplinary educational experience. These activities will contribute to positive societal outcomes by increasing fundamental scientific knowledge on polymers, educating the workforce in materials science and engineering, and potentially leading to improved polymer-based technologies for today's challenges.
The primary goals of this proposal are to develop an environmentally friendly continuous oil recovery system based on new, biodegradable, safe, and highly tunable poly(glycerol carbonate) meshes, and at the same time educate and train undergraduate and graduate students in a highly interdisciplinary research environment. Specifically, a combined mechanical (skimming/vacuum) and synthetic biodegradable sorbent material system is proposed to retrieve oil after an oil spill that addresses the recovery, reusability, safety, and lack of biodegradability of the current systems. In Objective 1, a library of fatty acid derivatized poly(1,3-glycerol carbonate)s and poly(1,2-glycerol carbonate)s will be synthesized in high yield with molecular weight above 50,000 g/mol via ring-opening polymerization of the corresponding carbonate or epoxide with CO2, respectively, and subsequently characterized. In Objective 2, electrospun polymeric meshes of the poly(glycerol carbonate)s will be fabricated and the oil absorbent, degradation, and mechanical properties will be determined. In Objective 3, the efficiency of oil extraction/recovery using the biodegradable mechanically robust polymeric meshes will be determined in a continuous, vacuum-assisted system and compared to the current gold-standard sorbent (a nonwoven polypropylene mesh). Completion of these objectives will provide: 1) novel synthetic approaches to functionalized poly(1,3-glycerol carbonate)s and poly(1,2-glycerol carbonate)s; 2) correlation of polymer structure on the control of degradation rates; 3) an understanding of the oil and water wettability in highly porous poly(glycerol carbonate) fiber meshes; and 4) design criteria for developing new polymeric materials for enhanced oil recovery after an oil spill.