A biodegradable sponge made from sunflower pollen has been created by scientists, Mothership reported on 8 April.

The development was the latest in a series of studies exploring potential pollen applications, the report said.

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (NTU Singapore) and Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea said the sponge’s ability to soak up oil and other organic substances meant it could be used to clean up marine oil spills and, when scaled up, remove contaminants from water bodies.

Pollen not used for plant pollination was often considered as biological waste, Mothership quoted the study’s lead scientist Prof Cho Nam-Joon, from the NTU School of Material Science and Engineering, as saying.

“Through our work, we try to find new uses for this ‘waste’ and turn it into a natural resource that is renewable, affordable and biodegradable.”

After acquiring sunflower pollen from China and Brazil, the scientists removed the pollen grain’s sticky oil-based cement-like coating, the report said. The pollen was then incubated for three days in an alkaline condition. A gel-like material emerged from the process and was then freeze-dried.

Following this process, the pollen sponge was formed and the structure transformed into a 3D porous architecture. The sponge’s durability was increased by brief heating at 200° C.

As pollen was abundant and with sunflower pollen retailing for around US$7.50/tonne, the pollen-made sponge was a relatively low cost material, Mothership reported.

Coated with stearic acid, the sponge is hydrophobic and repels water, according to the scientists. This allowed the sponge to absorb oil and other contaminants and less likely to take in water.

Oil-absorption tests conducted with oils and organic solvents of varying densities - such as gasoline, pump oil and n-hexane (a chemical found in crude oil) - found the pollen sponge was comparable to polypropylene absorbents, which were currently used by companies to absorb corrosives or oil-based liquids, Mothership wrote.

“These results demonstrate that the pollen sponge can selectively absorb and release oil contaminants and has similar performance levels to commercial oil absorbents,” Cho said.

Following a trial phase, the researchers hoped to make bigger sponges for industrial use and hoped to test them in real-life environments, the report said.

“We hope our pollen materials can one day replace widely-used plastics and help to curb the global issue of plastic pollution,” Prof Cho said.