The Argument for Federal Research: the Oleo Sponge

The late Senator William Proxmire (D, Wisconsin) used to belittle pure research, handing out “Golden Fleece Awards” to federal-subsidized researchers whose work he thought had no scientific value. Eventually, his name became a verb, meaning to unfairly obstruct scientific research for political gain, as in “the project has been proxmired”. Senator Proxmire was accused of recklessly attacking legitimate research for the crass purpose of furthering his own political career, with gross indifference as to whether his assertions were true or false, and without considering the long-term effects on American science and technology policy.

The Trump Administration has resumed the attack on pure science. Its draft budget proposes cuts as high as 31% to federally-sponsored research.

Which takes us to the Oleo Sponge. The Argonne National Laboratory is a federally-funded laboratory in suburban Illinois that performs primarily research science for the U.S. Department of Energy. Two scientists at Argonne National Lab, Seth Darling and Jeff Elam, have developed a potentially valuable technology that uses metal oxides to tightly bond oil-loving molecules to a porous substrate. The result is a special kind of “sponge” that selective absorbs oils from water. The “sponge” can be wrung out, and re-used to extract still more oils.

In water, the sponge absorbs oils, including spilled crude oil, from the water column. Not just the surface of the water; the entire water column. As a potential oil clean up technology, it’s a remarkable development.

The heart of the new development is a process called sequential infiltration synthesis, or SIS, which can be used to infuse hard metal oxide atoms within complicated nanostructures. At first blush, it served no useful purpose. It might well have been a candidate for being proxmired. And yet the apparently useless technology serves as the basis for a potentially transformative suite of technologies.

Which makes President Trump’s plans to axe the Department of Energy budget pretty problematic. It makes Secretary Perry pretty problematic, too.