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Fossil Fuels Image Credit: Cotton via Wikimedia Commons

Published on May 21st, 2013 | by James Ayre


New Ecologically Friendly Way To Clean Up Oil Spills — Raw Unprocessed Cotton

What’s the best way to clean up an oil spill? Using raw, unprocessed cotton to sop it up, apparently.

Image Credit: Cotton via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Cotton via Wikimedia Commons

New research, just published in ACS journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, has found that unprocessed, raw cotton may be the ideal material for cleaning up oil spills — it has an amazing ability to soak up oil, is relatively ecologically friendly, and is economically viable.

The new research has provided some of the very first scientific data on the subject — quantifying the ability of unprocessed, raw cotton to absorb crude oil.

Seshadri Ramkumar and his fellow researchers note that “a particular need exists for oil-spill sorbents that are abundantly available at relatively low cost, sustainable and biodegradable. There have been extensive studies on fibers such as barley straw, kapok and wool — but big gaps in knowledge about their basic crude oil-uptake mechanisms and no data on unprocessed raw cotton.” So the researchers set out to investigate those gaps, investigating the oil sorption properties of low micronaire cotton, a type of unprocessed cotton that is a good bit cheaper than most other forms.

“In this region, about 10 percent of the cotton grown in West Texas is low micronaire,” Seshadri Ramkumar said. “It doesn’t take a dye well, so it gets discounted. However, because low-micronaire cotton is less mature, it shrinks, and you are able to pack more fiber into a given area. The strength here is that the low-micronaire cotton absorbs the most crude oil. The oil is not only stuck to surface, the oil gets absorbed into the fiber.”

Image Credit: Lacey Nobles

Image Credit: Lacey Nobles

What the research has found is that one pound of the material can — amazingly — sop up and hold over 30 pounds of crude oil. The material soaks up the oil through a variety of different mechanisms, including both absorption and adsorption. Adsorbtion is when the oil sticks to the outer surface of the cotton fiber, but isn’t absorbed by it. “In contrast to synthetic sorbents, raw cotton with its high crude oil sorption capacity and positive environmental footprint make it an ecologically friendly sorbent for oil spill cleanups,” the report concludes.

It’s worth noting that the researchers have received funding from the Texas State Support Program of Cotton Incorporated and The CH Foundation.

Of course, in the ideal situation, materials to sop up oil spills wouldn’t be a necessity. But so long as oil is used, there will no doubt be oil spills, as the recent spill in Mayflower, Arkansas has served to remind us. (And the Deepwater Horizon spill was of course only a few years ago….) Simply using cheap, raw, unprocessed cotton certainly seems to be an improvement from the current use of more expensive synthetic materials, and something worth doing, in my opinion. Any thoughts?

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Larry Edwards

    I represent a new company by the
    name of Monarch Green Inc. We recently developed and patented a product line
    utilizing 100% polyurethane to adsorb rather than absorb the oil. Oil is drawn
    to our fine polyurethane surface and forms a bond. 1 lb of our loose granule
    product adsorbs 1 gallon of oil. The oil from our mats and booms can be wrung
    out into 55 gallon disposal drums. The recovered petrochemical fluids can be
    refined (if crude oil), re-refined, or recycled into other useful products such
    as asphalt. After squeezing the oil out from our booms and mats at the spill
    site, they can be reused multiple times by simply throwing them back onto the
    spill. After clean up, they can be incinerated with zero emissions to remove
    any future environmental liabilities.

    Significantly less product is needed of our products to absorb the same amount
    of oil. At a cost of $300/drum, significantly lower numbers of waste disposal
    drums are needed to dispose of our IncrediSorb granules, Oilinator Mats and
    Booms. When comparing the costs to clean up spills, people need to calculate
    the cost/gallon of oil to be removed from a spill site. We will be glad to do a
    cost analysis to show where the real savings are for companies using our

    Unlike the cotton product, our products do not absorb a single drop of oil.
    This means you are buying a product that strictly picks up the oil and not the
    water. As a result, our products work well in rainy and snowy conditions. They
    also work extremely well on water. In fact, they are at least 400% to 600% more
    efficient and effective. Our booms and mats will never sink and you should see
    how they work compared to any other product available on the market. They are
    also the most cost effective product used to mitigate oils spills available.
    Our competitor’s products do not stand a chance of coming close to our
    performance levels.

    They claim 1 lb of the cotton material can absorb 30 lbs of oil. Really! That
    is physically impossible. Think about it……1 lb absorbing 30 lbs of oil is
    insulting to anyone’s intelligence. This is simply false information and
    totally impossible. They also do not work in water.

    Since we are a new company with revolutionary products and brand new
    technology, the oil industry is not yet familiar with our products. We are
    looking for ways to create product awareness. Any ideas you might have to
    increase public awareness would be greatly appreciated.

    Larry Edwards

    Monarch Green Inc

    720-298-9232 Cell

  • A Few Questions

    Well, gee, full steam ahead for tar sands pipeline. Not only is it polluting water tables, but extra production of cotton in a non-sustainable/organic way will use up the rest of it. Nothing like promoting genetically modified organisms and the use of Monsanto’s poison glycophosphate (sp?) too. I’m sure they were tickled by this report, or did I miss something and they are the authors?

    On a separate note. Is the oil easy to remove/extract from the cotton? Are there uses for oil soaked cotton or can it be reused if oil extracted? What is the full life cycle cost and ecological impacts as compared with synthetic absorbents? Has the burning of fossil fuels and poisoning of water supply’s and the use of petrochemical fertilizers/expansion of dead zones been taken into account before extolling the use of cotton? How effective is cotton when the oil spill is in a watery environment or during a rainstorm…will it soak up the water or oil first? If it gets wet, will it still be effective at soaking up oil at all?

  • KHW

    Great story and interesting discovery, but then what happens to the oil-soaked cotton?

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