Fossil Fuels

Published on May 21st, 2013 | by James Ayre


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

May 21st, 2013 by  

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

'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?

    • Marvin Joiner

      All valid questions but I think you missed the point of the article. We are presently in a terrible position when it comes to dealing with spills with no good tools to work with. This is a good find and the details must be worked out. When I worked the Valdez spill we had pretty much no tools to work with. The Gulf was a little better but still much room to improve. People are not going to stop using oil and we need every tool we can get to mitigate the damage.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Agree, except for this bit – ” People are not going to stop using oil”

        People are going to stop using oil as soon as we can give them acceptable range EVs for about the price of gasmobiles.

        EVs are so much cheaper to operate and maintain that the market will quickly switch away from ICEVs. Personal transportation use of petroleum will drop very rapidly and should be basically gone in 20 years after ~$25k, 200 mile range EVs hit the showrooms.

        • Marvin Joiner

          I wish I could share your optimism, but even after EVs are in place, there are still petro needs for asphalt, plastics, fertilizers, ships, etc, etc. Asphalt alone is measured in the “Bs” of gallons. Plastics are growing and more. Don’t get me wrong, I want the EVs too. I’ve went to war, cleaned up huge oil spills and had my life manipulated over oil prices. I consider it a matter of national security. My wife and I tried to buy a Leaf this year but the range still wasn’t there. Regretfully, if I have to wait another 20 years, I wont likely be in a position to care. 🙂

          • Bob_Wallace

            We’re starting to make plastics from plant materials. That’s looking promising and may result in cheaper materials.

            The shipping industry is starting to work on efficiency. We may not eliminate the need for oil, but we can cut it significantly. And we have the possibility of switching, at least partially, to bio-oil.

            Have you considered a Volt? At least part of your driving with electricity and the rest with an efficient ICE. And Tesla may have their semi-affordable 200 mile range EV out in a year or two.

            I’m in your position. I need range and 4wd. I may not hang around long enough for my niche to be addressed.

          • Marvin Joiner

            Again, just being a realist, we are no where near replacing PP, PE, PC or PVC with any bio form of plastic. These account for 95% of all plastics used and we have not even invented a bio plastic that can hold up to the ph, temp or conditions these can hold up to. To invent and commercialize a replacement for all these will take decades. The key is simple conservation and various alternate energy to hold us over for the time being. I just traded in my Smart car for an IQ. As an engineer, I can tell you it really gets crappy mpg for its size. However, it meets my needs and I found that I don’t need a Hummer to massage my ego. I do like the Volt and in a couple years it is likely to have a reasonable price point/gallon ratio. I’m watching it closely with fingers crossed.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m not going to spend time looking to see if you are correct in your summary of bio-plastics. I will note that whoever wrote the Wiki page doesn’t totally agree with you.

            “Polylactic acid (PLA) is a transparent plastic produced from corn[12] or dextrose. It not only resembles conventional petrochemical-based mass plastics (like PET, PS or PE) in its characteristics, but it can also be processed on standard equipment that already exists for the production of some conventional plastics.

            The biopolymer poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is a polyester produced by certain bacteria processing glucose, corn starch[13] or wastewater.[14] Its characteristics are similar to those of the petroplastic polypropylene. The South American sugar industry, for example, has decided to expand PHB production to an industrial scale.

            PA 11 is a biopolymer derived from natural oil. It is also known under the tradename Rilsan B, commercialized by Arkema. PA 11 belongs to the technical polymers family and is not biodegradable. Its properties are similar to those of PA 12, although emissions of greenhouse gases and consumption of nonrenewable resources are reduced during its production. Its thermal resistance is also superior to that of PA 12. It is used in high-performance applications like automotive fuel lines, pneumatic airbrake tubing, electrical cable antitermite sheathing, flexible oil and gas pipes, control fluid umbilicals, sports shoes, electronic device components, and catheters.

            A similar plastic is Polyamide 410 (PA 410), derived 70% from castor oil, under the trade name EcoPaXX, commercialized by DSM.[15] PA 410 is a high-performance polyamide that combines the benefits of a high melting point (approx. 250°C), low moisture absorption and excellent resistance to various chemical substances.”

            And there’s more…


            Now, let’s assume we will still need some oil for plastic. That is not the huge problem like burning enormous amounts each day for fuel. We can recycle or rebury plastic. We don’t need to let that carbon get into the carbon cycle.

            What we know right now is that we can replace coal and natural gas with wind, solar, other renewables and storage. We might need a small amount of gas at times but we do have the landfill/municipal sewage gas option. And we’d be OK if we continued to get a small percentage of our electricity from NG (for deep backup).

            We also know that we could move most (probably more than 80%) of our personal travel to electricity. There are few people who couldn’t do their daily driving with an EV or a PHEV. And we could produce PHEVs to meet the needs of those who would now have problems (larger pickups and 4wd).

            If we need to cut our CO2 emission by ~70% by 2050 in order to dodge the worst of climate change then we have that technology right now. And unless something incredible happens, we’ll keep on finding more and better ways to cut fossil fuel use over the next 35 years.

  • KHW

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

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