'Magic carpet' of gel could mean end for oil spill disasters

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The Independent Online

British scientists have invented a "supergel" that can soak up oil pollution, raising hopes we may soon be able to contain much of the devastation of fuel spills from tankers.

The hydrogel, designed by pharmacists at the University of Bradford, West Yorkshire, acts as a catalyst to convert the spilt oil into a substance that can be easily dealt with. A liquid form of the gel, for which a patent is being applied, can be sprayed on the oil, then, as the oil and gel meld, thicken and solidify into a rubbery mat, which can be rolled up like a carpet and removed. The absorbed oil can later be separated from the gel and recycled.

"In effect, you simply pour the gel onto the affected area, have a cup of coffee while you're waiting for it to work and then roll up the oil in strips," said Dr Donald Eagland, of the university's school of pharmacy, who helped design the gel with his colleague, Dr Nicholas Crowther.

The gel could even offer new hope to birds and other sealife caught in spills such as the Erika tanker disaster off northern France three months ago. More than 10,000 tonnes of fuel, much of it said to be toxic, have come ashore in Brittany and is still washing up on tourist beaches.

That spill has so far killed about 300,000 seabirds, more than in any other ecological disaster in the world. Despite efforts of rescuers who clean their oil-clogged feathers, few birds recover sufficiently to return to the wild.

"In theory, you could rub the hydrogel into the bird's feathers and clean them before it sets," said Dr Eagland. "Whether at the end of the day that would be any better for the bird than the present detergents could be established only by tests. We know of only a small number of birds recover after cleaning."

The potential uses of the gel do not stop there. Because it can be heated to high temperatures, it is sterile enough to be used in medicine, acting as a dressing for injuries incorporating antiseptics and antibiotics.

Other trials are to be conducted at the university to see whether the gel can aid the growth of skin cells for the treatment of burns victims. It could also be injected in the form of an antibiotic gel into arthritic joints with substances such as collagen, one of the main building blocks of cartilage, to ease osteoarthritic pain.

The gel can also reduce the harmful effects of agricultural herbicides and pesticides.