When a pipeline spilled thousands of gallons of oil off the coast of Santa Barbara in May, beachgoers reported seeing unusual globs of oil on beaches that weren't officially closed. And even on a regular day, beaches across the country are often polluted from oils and grease that runs off highways when it rains. Even if beaches aren't polluted enough to shut down for the day, they may not exactly be clean.
This is why a new bikini is designed to help suck pollutants like oil and chemicals from the water as someone swims. It's made from a special material that was originally designed to be used at scale to clean up oil spills. While they're waiting for that to happen, you might as well do a small part on your own swims.
"Oil spills occurring worldwide cause incredible damage to our oceans, and many of us just watched what happened and could not do much," says Mihri Ozkan, an engineering professor at the University of California-Riverside who developed the material along with her husband and fellow engineering professor Cengiz and a team of students.
"Starting from this point, we wanted make a new material that dislikes water but at the same time loves oil," she says. "That is how our sponge material development started. As individuals, we thought we can also contribute to this big goal by just swimming and enjoying ourselves in the ocean."
The low-cost material is made from a form of heated sugar. Pores in the fabric absorb pollutants, and trap them inside the fabric so they don't touch someone's skin. "The sponge material is super-porous—more than an actual sponge—and can absorb more than its volume," says Cengiz. At the same time, the material repels water.
The engineers worked with designers from Eray Carbajo, a firm based in New York City and Turkey, to form the material into a swimsuit. "There are oil-like contaminants everywhere, but we don't notice them while we're swimming," Mihri says. "In that environment, the sponge will work for you."
It isn't clear exactly how practical the suit would be—it doesn't release pollution unless it's heated to more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. It might not be practical to drop off at a special cleaners after an ordinary swim.
Still, the material itself could definitely make a difference outside of a suit, and the researchers hope to help it spread. "We want our sponge material to be implemented wherever any oil spill can occur," says Cengiz.