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

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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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James Ayre

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.

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