Save the Planet: Peng-Cheng’s effective agent fighting for the removal of oil spill from water surface

Peng-Cheng Ma’s research is on, “Bio-based oil gelling agent for effective removal of oil spills from water surface”.

The International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation Limited (ITOPF) maintains a database of oil spills from tank vessels, including combined carriers, floating production solutions (FPSOs) and barges. This is inclusive of information on accidental spillages of persistent and non-persistent hydrocarbon oil since 1970, except those resulting from acts of war. The data also includes the location and cause of the incident, the vessel involved, the type of oil spill and the spill amount.

According to the ITOPF, in 2017 two large spills (>700 tonnes) and four medium spills (7-700 tonnes) were recorded. Peng-Cheng mentions in the study that it is well known that petroleum is known as the industrial blood, which continues to play an important role in the continuous development of the economy. However, oil leakage accidents, especially during the exploitation and transportation of petroleum, have been quite frequent in the past years.

The oil spills and chemical leakage is a cause of worry as it causes environmental pollution and ecological problem. Recent catastrophes in the Gulf of Mexico have brought this issue to the fore. This has caused a stir amongst the environmentalists and it has highlighted the importance and urgency of developing new methods for dealing with this hazard. It has been seen that the most utilised and efficient methods for combating this peril include in-situ burning, mechanical recovery by oil skimmer, dispersant-aided diffusion, physical separation, etc. Physical sorption of oil by porous materials has emerged as a simple and efficient technique.

Peng-Cheng further mentions that easy applicability and excellent suitability are two challenges when designing a suitable porous material for separating the oil-water mixture. There is another concern that the adsorption method is ineffective for oily liquid, like the crude oil, which is a highly viscous liquid in room temperature.

In recent years, the phase-selective gelation method was adopted for the recovery of spilled oil. However, it was later assessed that the multi-step for the synthesis and rareness of starting materials were the two major obstacles for the large-scale production of the material. Therefore, Peng-Cheng realised that the development of new oil gelling agent (OGA) with characters like excellent gelling capability, fast diffusion/adsorption to oil, and easy process for production was highly desirable.

The study led by Peng-Cheng in the Xinjiang Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a part of a larger project in developing material with hieratical structures for environmental and engineering applications. Peng-Cheng has described that in a study conducted in his group, powdered OGA was prepared by using biodegradable wheat bran as a raw material that was obtained from a local flour mill.

Their findings showed that the obtained gelator showed a controlled hydrophilicity to water and oleophilicity to the organic compounds, and had the capability to selectively congeal oil spills into floating gels on water surface, thus preventing oil film from spreading and providing convenience for easy collection. This was noticed as a result of the synergistic effect arising from the organic coating and the enhanced surface roughness in the material. The synergy of the above two aspects made the material an excellent oil-gelling performance, i.e., the aggregation-induced gelation (AIG), in macro-scale. The team concluded that with advantages like easy applicability, short gelling time, excellent phase selectivity, and green process for the preparation, the modified wheat bran demonstrated excellent results and a remarkable potential as an oil solidifier for the cleanup of oil spills.

Figure 1. Application of wheat bran as a gelling agent for the removal of crude oil from water surface and corresponding mechanism for oil-water separation.

Peng-Cheng’s brilliant research may resolve this menace of oil spills, which causes harm to the aquatic ecosystem and the environment in general. This field is indeed in need of more participation from the community in science and engineering to address the problem, and to achieve the high impact it deserves. The young researchers must add their inputs to this excellent research to further a green cause.

Short Biography

Professor Peng-Cheng Ma


Professor Ma graduated with BSc in Chemistry and MSc in Polymer Chemistry and Physics, both from Lanzhou University, China. He obtained a PhD degree in Mechanical Engineering from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He continued his research as a visiting scholar in the same institute for one and half years. From 2010 to 2012, he was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and working in Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research Dresden in Germany. Professor Ma joined the Xinjiang Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences in May, 2012. Currently, he holds a Professorship under the National 1000-Talent Program sponsored by the Chinese Government.

Professor Ma has been active in polymer composites/nanocomposites, interface science and characterization. Currently, his works focus on materials with hierarchical structures for engineering and environmental applications. He authored a monograph (Carbon Nanotubes for Polymer Reinforcement, CRC Press, 2011), 2 book chapters and published more than 50 papers with a total citation of 4800 in the broad field of material science and engineering. Professor Ma’s other research achievements include two Best Paper Awards from the 5th Asian-Australasian Conference on Composite Materials (ACCM-5) and the 9th International Symposium on Electronic Materials and Packaging (EMAP-2007), an Overseas Research Award to support him to carry out joint research in Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Humboldt Research Fellowship, Outstanding Youth for Nature Science in Xinjiang Province, National 1000-Talent Program, and so on. Thanks to his diligent effort and expertise in the field of composites science and technology, Professor Ma was awarded Composites Part A–Editor’s Top Reviewer Award 2015, Career Award of Western Light Program sponsored by Chinese Government in 2016 and Outstanding Reviewer for Composites Science and Technology, Carbon and Chemical Engineering Journal in 2017. More recently, he was elected as a Fellow of Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC), UK.

Besides fundamental research, Professor Ma is enthusiastic in transferring knowledge to technology for various applications. He is a holder of 12 patents, and 6 of them have been transferred/licensed to industry. He pioneered the research on polymer nanocomposites for oil-water separation, and the developed material has been commercialized and can be used for water purification and recovery of oil spills in marine system. This project was awarded the 3rd Class in the China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition 2017.



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