Photo: Peter Tsou at NASA's JPL, Public domain.
Humanity's Best Sponge to Clean Our Biggest Mess
Aerogel, also known as "frozen smoke", is a wonder-material that was first created by Samuel Stephens Kistler in 1931, and subsequently used by NASA to do things like capturing comet dust. I've already written about how it can be used in more down-to-Earth applications like insulation, but it could also be used someday to clean oil spills (too bad it's not quite ready to be deployed on a large-scale right now, because it would really come in handy in the Gulf of Mexico).
AeroClay is in the beginning stages of testing a prototype aerogel sponge, among other aerogel products. An aerogel sponge can soak up water and oil; which one it soaks up depends on the aerogel's chemistry.
By modifying the different polymers that keep aerogel from collapsing in on itself, scientists can program which liquids or particles the material picks up.
An aerogel sponge could clean up oil covering rocks and birds like a kitchen sponge, but AeroClay's executives primarily have another use in mind; stopping oil from reaching the shore in the first place.(source)
Being so low-density, aerogel could hold a lot more oil than most other materials. That doesn't necessarily mean it's always the best way to capture oil, but when you need a sponge-like material, specially-made aerogel would probably be hard to beat (if the cost can be brought down enough, that is).
But oil spills are a symptom; switching to clean energy can not only avoid the environmental damage caused by accidents, it can also help us avoid the damage caused by the normal operations of power plants (even when it's working as intended, a coal plants is an environmental disaster).
Via Discovery News
More on the BP Oil Spill
The BP Oil Spill as Seen by Astronauts on the ISS
Clever Fake BP T-Shirt: "We're bringing oil to American shores."
Rush Limbaugh on the BP Oil Spill: "It's as natural as the ocean water is."